General

Shorts: Get your free ESTA while it’s hot! – No longer valid

Word got out this morning that starting September 8th 2010, you will need to pay USD $14.- when you apply for a travel approval for the US. You can do that by filling out the so called ESTA form. Most people without a visa for the USA remember the green I-94W visa waiver that you needed to fill out. This has been mostly replaced by the online version of the form which can be found on the ESTA website and can be requested by the people from the following countries.

What most people don’t seem to know, is that you can create a request on the website that is valid for two years. Most people I know (and I was one of them) used to fill out an ESTA application on the website prior to each visit to the US. Basically, there’s nothing wrong with that, and the approach is still valid. But, starting September 8th 2010, you will simply have to pay USD $14.- each time you fill out the form. However, if you fill out the form prior to this date, you can create a request that is valid for two years once it has passed all checks.

How do you do that? It’s actually quite simple. The fields that state “Address While In The United States” and “Travel Information” are not mandatory. So, the simplest way is to fill out the form on the ESTA website and leave those items blank. If you are granted access rights with your request, your approval will not just be valid for one trip to the USA, but for all trips in the upcoming two years, without having to pay for additional requests. Depending on your travel frequency, this might just save you a bit of money.

Cisco, EMC, General, VMware

It’s all about change and passion

Some of you who read the title of this post will already have a hunch what this is all about. Heraclitus seems to be the person who first stated:

Nothing endures but change.

And I can only agree with that. I remember reading a post from Nick Weaver about an important change in his professional life, and I love this quote:

By taking this position I am intentionally moving myself from the top man on the totem pole to the lowest man on the rung.

And I think that most people who have read Nick’s blog know that this wasn’t entirely the truth, especially when looking what he was able to do until now.

Well, Nick can be assured now. There’s actually on person on the team that is “lower on the rung”. That person would be me.

Time for a change!

I am joining EMC and taking on the role of vSpecialist, or as my new contract says “Technical Consultant VCE”.

I am also going to be leaving my comfort zone and leave a team of people behind that have been great to work with. I have been working at SAP for seven years now, and the choice to leave wasn’t easy. I was lucky enough to have worked with a multitude of technologies in an environment that was high paced and stressful, but very rewarding, and I want to thank all of my colleagues for making the journey interesting! Even so, it’s time for me to make a change.

I was lucky enough to get to know several people who already work in a similar role, and if there’s one thing that distinguishes them in my mind, then it would be the passion they have for their job. This was actually the main reason for me to make the switch to EMC. It’s not about making big bucks, it’s not about being a mindless drone in the Evil Machine Company or drinking the Kool-Aid, it’s about getting a chance to work with people that share a passion and are experts at what they do. It’s about the chance to prove myself and perhaps one day joining their ranks as experts.

So, while I wrap things up here at SAP, if all goes well I will be joining the vSpecialist team on October 1st, and hopefully you will bear with me while I find my way going through this change, and I do hope you drop by every now and then to read some new posts from me.

See you on the other side!

Apple, General, OSX

Shorts: How to set up your BlackBerry as a UMTS/GPRS modem on Snow Leopard with T-Mobile in Germany

After being on the road in a high speed train without any WLAN connection, I decided to do some searching on how to set up my BlackBerry as modem. Since the current firmware on my BlackBerry 9700 seems to have a somewhat flaky Bluetooth stack (currently I’m running on firmware v5.0.0.545) I wanted to do this via USB, but most of the settings should be the same for a device connected via Bluetooth.

One note should be made, and that is that I set this up for a connection on T-Mobile Germany, so the settings are most likely different for your provider, but this might give you a rough idea on how to set up everything. So let’s get started:

  • Start by downloading the BlackBerry Desktop Software for Mac. Right now you should be able to get a copy of it right here.
  • Install the software and connect your BlackBerry to it. The steps here should be pretty self explanatory.
  • Now, open your network preferences. To do so, go to “System Preferences” and click on “Network”, which can be found in the row with the header “Internet & Wireless”.
  • You should find a new device there called “RIM Composite Device”. If it’s not there, click on the plus sign at the lower left, and select the “RIM Composite Device” from the “Interface” drop down list. You can give it any name, for example “BlackBerry USB Internet Connection” might be a name that gives you a better idea of what this is. Then click on the “create” button.
  • Now, for the telephone number you will enter “*99#” (without the quotes). If you were setting up dial-in info on your BlackBerry, you would also use this as the dial-in number, and you would need to alter the number to tell your smartphone about the APN it should use. You could enter “*99*1#” or “*99***1#,” to force it to use the first APN, or you could use “*99*4#” or “*99***4#,” to make it use the fourth entry. But in my case I just went with the first one and used the short form of “*99#”.
  • You can enter anything you want as a user name and password, but the fields can not be left blank. I used “tm” in my setup.
  • Once you have done that, you can click on the “Advanced” button and go to the tab “Modem”. There, change the “Vendor” to “Research in Motion”, and select “Blackberry IP Modem (CDMA)” as the model.
  • Leave the CID as it is (it should be “1”), and enter “internet.t-mobile” or “dynamic” as the APN.
  • Click on the tab “DNS” and enter “193.254.160.1” as the DNS server.
  • Go to the tab “PPP” and deselect all of the checks.
  • Now, click on “OK” and after that select “Save”.

Now, you should be able to connect to the internet using your phone. You can check the “Show modem in status in menu bar” to have a small phone symbol at the top menu bar to make it easier to track the status of your connection, and make it slightly easier to connect and disconnect your connection.

Two small notes to finish up this short. One, these are the settings that worked for me. If you are not in Germany, it’s likely that you would need to change the APN, DNS server and username/password to correspond with the carrier you are using. Also, it is possible that some of the settings made under “PPP” could be different and the connections still works. These are just my settings that I wanted to share.

Second, check your data plan!. Surfing via your phone is no problem once you get the connection up and running, but your data usage may accumulate quicker than you initially thought, and exceeding the amount of data in your plan could get expensive really quickly.

Last but not least: Let me know if this works for you, or if it doesn’t and you managed to get it working in a different way, let me know about it and I’ll make sure that I update the post.

General, Networking, Storage, Virtualization

My “Follow, even if it’s not Friday” list

There’s a meme on Twitter that can be witnessed each Friday. It’s called “Follow Friday” and can be found by searching for the #FollowFriday hash tag, or sometimes just simply abbreviated to #FF to save on space in a tweet.

Problem with a lot of those follow Friday tweets is that most of the time you have no idea why you are being given the advice to follow these people. If you are lucky you will see a remark in the tweet saying why you want to follow someone, or why I should follow all of these people, but in most cases it’s a matter of clicking on a person, going to their time line and hope that you can find a common denominator that gives you an indication of why you want to follow someone.

In an attempt to do some things differently, I decided to create this post and list some of the folks that I think are worth following. And I’ll try and add a description of what someone (or a list of people) do that make them worth following in my opinion. And if you are not on this list please don’t be offended, I will try to update it every now and then, but it would be impossible for me to pick out every single one of you on the first attempt.

So here goes nothing! I’m starting off this post with people that offer a great deal of info on things related to VMware, and I will try to follow up with other topics as time goes buy. Check back every now and then to see some new people to follow.

Focus on VMware:

  • @sakacc – Besides being the VP for the VMware Technology Alliance at EMC, Chad is still a true geek and is a great source of knowledge when it comes to things VMware and EMC. Also, very helpful in regards to try and help people who have questions in those areas. Be sure to check out his blog as it is a great source of information!
  • @Kiwi_Si – Simon is a great guy, and can tell you a lot about VMware and home labs. Because of the home labs he is also very strong when it comes to finding out more about HP’s x86 platform, and once again I highly recommend reading his TechHead blog.
  • @alanrenouf – This French sounding guy is actually hiding in the UK and is considered by many to be a PowerCLI demi-god. Follow his tweets and you will find out why people think of him that way.
  • @stevie_chambers – You want to find out more about Cisco UCS? Steve is the man to follow on Twitter, also for finding out more about UCS combined with VMware.
  • @DuncanYB – Duncan started the Yellow Bricks blog, which emphasizes on all things VMware, and also is a great source of info on VMware HA.
  • @scott_lowe – Scott is an ace when it comes to VMware.
  • @jtroyer – John is the online evangelist and enterprise community builder at VMware. For anything new regarding VMware and it’s community you should follow John.
  • @lynxbat – I would call it something else, but Nick is a genius. He started tweaking the EMC Celerra VSA and has worked wonders with it. I highly recommend following him!
  • @jasonboche – Virtualization evangelist extraordinaire. Jason has the biggest home lab setup that I know of, I’d like to see someone trump that setup.
  • @gabvirtualworld – Gabrie is a virtualization architect and has a great blog with lot’s of resources on VMware.
  • @daniel_eason – Daniel is an architect for a large British airline and knows his way around VMware quite well, but is also quite knowledgeable in other areas.
  • @SimonLong_ – With a load of certifications and an excellent blog, Simon is definitely someone to follow on Twitter.

Focus on storage:

  • @StorageNerve – Devang is the go-to-guy on all things EMC Symmetrix.
  • @storageanarchy – Our friendly neighborhood storage anarchist is known to have an opinion, but Barry is also great when it comes to finding out more about EMC’s storage technology.
  • @valb00 – Val is a great source of info on things NetApp, and you can find a lot of good retweets with useful information from him.
  • @storagebod – If you want someone to tell it to you like it is, you should follow Martin.
  • @Storagezilla – Mark is an EMC guy with great storage knowledge. Also, if you find any videos of him cursing, tell me about it because I could just listen to him go on and on for hours with that accent he has.
  • @nigelpoulton – Nigel is the guy to talk to when you want to know more about data centre, storage and I/O virtualisation. He’s also great on all areas Hitachi/HDS.
  • @esignoretti – If you are (planning on) using Compellent storage, be sure to add Enrico to your list.
  • @chrismevans – The storage architect, or just Chris, knows his way around most storage platforms, and I highly recommend you read his blog for all things storage, virtualization and cloud computing.
  • @HPStorageGuy – For all things related to HP and their storage products you should follow Calvin.
  • @ianhf – “Don’t trust any of the vendors” is almost how I would sum up Ian’s tweets. Known to be grumpy at times, but a great source when it comes to asking the storage vendors the right questions.
  • @rootwyrm – As with Ian, rootwyrm also knows how to ask hard questions. Also, he isn’t afraid to fire up big Bertha to put the numbers to the test that were given by a vendor.
  • @sfoskett – Stephen is an original blogger and can probably be placed under any of the categories here. Lot’s of good information and founder of Gestalt IT
  • @Alextangent – The office of the CTO is where Alex is located inside of NetApp. As such you can expect deep technical knowledge on all things NetApp when you follow him.
  • @StorageMojo – I was lucky to have met Robin in person. A great guy working as an analyst, and you will find refreshing takes and articles by following his tweets. A definite recommendation!
  • @mpyeager – Since Matthew is working for IT service provider Computacenter, he has a lot of experience with different environments and has great insight on various storage solutions as well as a concern about getting customers more bang for their buck.

Focus on cloud computing:

  • @Beaker – Christofer Hoff is the director of Cloud & Virtualization Solutions at Cisco and has a strong focus on all things cloud related. His tweets can be a bit noisy, but I would consider his tweets worth the noise in exchange for the good info you get by following him. Oh, and by the way… Squirrel!!
  • @ruv – Reuven is one of the people behind CloudCamp and is a good source of information on cloud and on CloudCamp.
  • @ShlomoSwidler – Good cloud stuff is being (re)tweeted and commented on by Shlomo.

So, this is my list for now, but be sure to check back every once in a while to see what new people have been added!


Created: May 27th 2010
Updated: May 28th 2010 – Added storage focused bloggers
Updated: July 23rd 2010 – Added some storage focused bloggers and some folks that center on cloud computing
Updated:

General

Something fun. The Linux alternative to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

I was talking to some colleagues this morning and I mentioned a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Rave”. Since my colleagues didn’t know this poem existed, I figured there might be more people out there that are not aware of it, and I like what they did. So without any further ado I present to you:

The Penguin – by Rob Flynn and Jeramey Crawford

Once upon a term’nal dreary, while I hack’ed, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten code–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a beeping,
As of some one gently feeping, feeping using damn talk mode.
“‘Tis some hacker,” I muttered, “beeping using damn talk mode–
Only this. I hate talk mode.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak semester,
And college life wrought its terror as the school year became a bore.
Eagerly I wished for privledges;–higher access I sought to borrow
For my term’nal, unceasing sorrow–sorrow for a file called core–
For the rare and radiant files of .c the coders call the core–
Access Denied. Chown me more.

“Open Source,” did all mutter, when, with very little flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Penguin of the saintly days of yore.
Quite a bit obese was he; having eaten lots of fish had he,
But, by deign of Finnish programmer, he sat in the middle of my floor–
Looking upon my dusty term’nal in the middle of my floor–
Came, and sat, and nothing more.

Then the tubby bird beguiling my sad code into shining,
By the free and open decorum of the message that it bore,
“Though thy term’nal be dusty and slow,” he said, “Linux be not craven!”
And thus I installed a new OS far from the proprietary shore–
The kernel code open but documentation lacking on this shore.
Quoth the Penguin, “pipe grep more!”

Much I marvelled this rotund fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning–little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help believing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird in the middle of his floor–
Bird or beast sitting in the middle of his cluttered floor,
With such instructions as “pipe grep more.”

But the Penguin, sitting lonely in that cluttered floor, spoke only
Those words, as if its soul in that instruction he did outpour.
Nothing more did he need utter; understood did I among that clutter–
Understood his command as I could scarcely do a few moments before–
I typed as furious as was willed me, understanding just a minute before.
Again the bird said “pipe grep more!”

“Amazing!” said I, “Penguin we will conquor the world if you will!
By the Network that interconnects us–by that Finn we both adore–
We’ll take this very world by storm!” For now grasped I what he’d meant,
The thing I do while searching
/usr/doc/* for that wond’rous lore–
Those compendiums of plaintext documentation and descriptive lore.
Quoth the Penguin, “pipe grep more!”

And the Penguin, never waddling, still is sitting, still is sitting
In the middle of my room and still very cluttered floor;
And his eyes have all the seeming of the free beer I am drinking
And the term’nal-light o’er him glowing throws his shadows on the floor;
And this OS from out the shadows that is pow’ring my term’nal on the floor
Shall be dominating–“Pipe grep more!”

General, GestaltIT, Stack

This vendor is locking me in!

Or so I’m told. Not just once or twice, but it’s something that is written down at least once each time a vendor introduces something new or when a revision of an existing product is rolled out.

Now, you could say that this is the pot calling the kettle black and I would agree with you. It’s a thing I mentioned in my UCS post, and also in my recent post on the stack wars. And today a tweet from @Zaxstor got me thinking about it some more. I asked the following on Twitter:

I hear this argument about vendor lock in all of the time. Open question: How do I avoid a vendor lock in? By going heterogeneous?

Because, when you think about it, we all are subject to vendor lock-in all of the time. As soon as I decide to purchase my new mobile phone, I am usually tied to either the phone manufacturer or the carrier that is use. Sometimes I am even tied to both, you just need to think about the iPhone as an example for this kind of lock-in.

The same goes for the car I drive. When I buy it from the dealer, I get an excellent package that is guaranteed to work. Until I take it to an inspection with a garage that is not part of the authorized network. My car will still drive, and will probably work great, but I no longer have a large part of the guarantees that came with it when I bought it, and would have been intact if I had taken it to an authorized dealer.

Now, I know my analogy is slightly flawed here since we are talking about things that work on a different scale and use entirely different technologies, but what I am trying to say is that we make decisions that lock us in with a certain vendor on an almost daily basis. Apparently the guys in and around the data center just like to talk about that problem a bit more.

One remark was made however by fellow blogger Dimitris Krekoukias and confirmed by several others:

“It’s not how you get in to the lock, but how you get out of it.”

And I do think that this is probably the key, but fortunately we have some help there from the competition. But it’s not all down to the others! All vendors are guilty with trying to sell something. It’s not their fault, it’s just something that “comes with the territory”. They will try to pitch you their product and make your head dizzy with what this new product can do. It’s all good, and it’s all grand according to them.

And yes, it is truly grand what this shiny new toy can do, but the question is if you really need it? Try to ask what kind of value a feature will offer in your specific setup. Try to judge if you really need this feature, and ask yourself the question what you are going to do if the feature proves to be less useful then expected.

Remember that not all is lost if you do lock yourself in with that vendor. Usually others will be quick to follow with new features and this is where the help from the competition comes in. Take the example with the mobile phone. Even if you will not receive any help from your current provider, you can bet that the provider that now also offers the same package will try to help you to become his customer. If NetApp is not providing you with an option to migrate out of that storage array, you can bet your pants that Hitachi will try and help you migrate to their arrays.

Now, I’m not saying that this is the best solution. Usually exchanging solutions is also accompanied with a loss of knowledge and investments that were made. But it’s all on you to factor that in before you take the plunge, and in the end that lock that you have with your current vendor might be hard and expensive to break, but usually it’s never a mission impossible.


P.S. Just as a side note, I’m not saying NetApp will not allow or help you to migrate out of an array, I’m just using these names as an example. Replace them with any vendor you like.

P.P.S. Being part of the discussion fellow blogger Storagebod posted something quite similar, be sure to read it here

General

The scam that is called e-books?

Amazon made a big splash when they introduced the Kindle back in 2007. It was one of the first e-book readers out there and sported an E Ink brand electronic paper display which shows 16 shades of gray, and was connected to the Sprint network that allowed the use of Amazon’s own Whispernet which allowed it’s owner to download books over the air. We saw several iterations of the device, and at a certain point Amazon saw it fit to release the Kindle as an application for different platforms, allowing books to be synchronized to other devices and read from any platform that was able to run the Kindle application.

Other vendors soon picked up this trend and introduced their own e-book readers. Examples of that are the Nook from Barnes & Noble, or Sony’s Reader. All of them having the basic function of reading books in their respective supported formats, some sporting their own unique features to set them apart from the rest. Besides the introduction of devices which were pretty similar, the e-book market was fairly quiet with Amazon dominating the market.

Things pretty much looked like that, that is, until Apple made a splash by entering the e-book reader game with their iBook application on their recently introduced iPad.

Now, I don’t want to turn this in to a review of the iPad. I’ll try to follow up on the iPad itself with a seperate post. But I do want to take a closer look at the e-books that I am reading on my iPad, because some of you might not be aware of these things when considering to purchase an e-book reader.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” – Laozi

Several of the people I talked to lately were considering the purchase of an e-book reader. Their considerations were all quite valid, thinking of things like the reduced weight while traveling but still being able to take several books along for the trip. Heck, some of them would be happy to have an e-book reader because it meant that they would still be getting their favorite newspaper synchronized to the device while they were abroad.

As I just wrote, I can fully comprehend what they mean. But, the journey towards the digital print usually ends up being a bit more then just reading your books on the road. Even though that seems to be such a simple request, you get much more then you bargained for when you finally decide to make the switch.

First, there’s the choice of your device. You could use a Kindle which is great when it comes to battery life, you can even read it with direct sunlight on the screen and you can read your books or magazines on a lot of different systems now because the Kindle application is pretty wide spread. But then you might think back to remember that Amazon actually remotely wiped a copy of George Orwell’s novel “1984”.

To me as a simple user, I would say that this means that I did not purchase the book itself, it seems to be that I just purchased a license to read that book via my Kindle account. Things like the proprietary Kindle document format (.AZW) and the Terms of Use that forbid transferring Amazon e-books to another user or a different type of device just make this feeling stronger.

I could go with a different reader like for example the Sony Reader. With that one, the ties to my single user account are not that strong. The Reader can read e-books that have some form of <abbr title="Digital Rights Management"DRM, but at least I can transfer my purchases to and from the Reader. I also have some added features (depending on the model) like a touch based screen, or the fact that I can use a lot of open formats which in turn saves me time on converting my documents, or even use Sony’s partnership with OverDrive that let’s me get e-books from the library. On the other hand, I miss out on the connectivity that a Kindle offers me and synchronizing books, or on reading the same books from the point where I left off by using digital bookmarks. And lending a book to a friend is going to be hard no matter which type of e-book reader I purchase, although there are plenty of people who wouldn’t loan the book anyway.

Second, you will never be able to combine the emotions you might have with a printed book. Depending on who you are, you will feel differently about handling an actual book. The feel of the covers, the choice of a hardcover or a pocket edition, the weight in your hands, the look in your book closet or even the touch of the paper that is used. Even something simple as they way a collection of books looks on a shelf.

Reading is all about emotions and knowledge. You usually read because you need or want to learn something, you read to pass the time at the barber shop, or you read to get lost in a different world where you yourself get to decide what just exactly how green the jacket is that the hero in that latest part of the sci-fi trilogy is wearing. It’s all about feeling it, and it’s just the same when it comes to reading something that is no longer on paper. Some people will like the color screen of the iPad just because it makes magazines or books about photography come to life. Others loathe the fact that the iPads screen is glossy or that the battery life is much lower than that of the Sony Reader. Then there are those folks that say that looking at an e-Ink or iPad screen is way too tiring on the eyes when compared to paper, but they like the option of having a screen with back-lighting so that they don’t have to keep the light on in bed when their partner is trying to get some sleep.

All in all

When you look at the previous two points, you will have some things to make you wonder if going the e-book route is right for your. Well, if that made you wonder, hang on to your socks because the third one will probably be even more simple but way harder to comprehend. It’s as simple as…

the price of the e-book!

Not some sort of cool things like make fonts larger or smaller, or something like a preview option or handy things like my book spoken to me by a cool computer voice. It’s just the simple pricing mechanism that sort of ruin the e-book experience. And the problem gets far worse when you are taking a look at books that are not considered main stream.

Let me just give you some simple examples:

  • VMware vSphere and Virtual Infrastructure Security: Securing the Virtual Environment – Edward L. Haletky
    • Amazon – Paperback: $34.98
    • Amazon – Kindle: $39.09
    • Sony – Reader: $39.99
    • Hotbooksale – Paperback: $35.12
  • Angelology: A Novel – Danielle Trussoni
    • Amazon – Hardcover: $17.97
    • Amazon – Kindle: $13.79
    • Sony – Reader: $9.99
    • Hotbooksale – Hardcover: $12.95

Now, that’s just two books. From all of the stores combined you will probably have around 600,000 to 650,000 books to choose from. But how can it be that only the popular books are cheaper as an e-reader? These two examples are not that far apart, but another example would be the “Solaris Internals: Solaris 10 and OpenSolaris Kernel Architecture” where the price difference is a whopping $26.69. I could buy a different book just by looking at that price difference.

And that’s the part that I don’t understand. With some digging you will note that the printing costs are about 10% of the total costs when it comes to publishing a book. That’s not that huge a difference, and let’s also take in to account that the publisher actually has to do something extra to create a separate copy of the book in it’s electronic form.

But then I also need to take a look at the costs that will fall away in it’s electronic form. Things like the number of trees that are not cut down, or the whole carbon footprint that comes with creating the paper, shipping the books, or even something simple as the space it takes to display and stock the book.

In the end

I do truly think that actually distributing or selling books in their digital forms would be cheaper than doing the same in it’s actual printed form. And even if that’s not the case, why are publishing companies not experimenting with these new types of media? Why not have a pricing model that allows me to loan the book for a certain amount of time? Some folks mentioned on twitter mentioned the option of using a ticker to display ads and create additional revenue that way.

The new media open the way to interactive books. Could you imagine reading Winnie the Pooh that mixes a story with animations that pick up the story where the text stops? It could be a different way of learning your kids to read a book. And advertisers could combine that with small games or the option to purchase different endings to a story. It all boils down to how creative the publishing companies are, but so far there seems to be little motivation to actually achieve a pricing model where e-books are cheaper when comparing them to their printed counterpart. It almost seems that the publishing companies are as dusty and static as an old printed book.

As for myself, I have made the switch to reading digitally where I can. And I’m just starting that journey, but there are still some bumps along the way. In a certain way it’s a shame that I will try to reduce the amount of printed stuff that I purchase. On the other hand, I’m on the road enough to appreciate just having that one device with me and reducing the weight of my bags a bit. In the end it all boils down to your own preferences, but if you do decide to go down that digital road, be prepared for some surprises and try to educate yourself before you find yourself pinned down in one area where you didn’t even consider ending up when you started the trip.

General

Staying in touch while traveling to the USA

Devang Panchigar over at storagenerve.com posted an article about traveling abroad from the USA and how you can stay in touch. I found it to be good, but it lacks some points for people who are visiting the US and originate from a different country, so I decided to write my own post and share some experiences.

One thing I want to share is something that my dad has taught me. He has been in shipping and forwarding almost his entire life and was on the road a lot. He always said that when you are travelling it boils down to the three main things, and I think that is good enough to share even though it’s not that relevant for staying in touch.

Three things that are most important:

  1. Passport / ID
  2. Medication
  3. Wallet

In Dutch and in German I always refer to them as the “three P’s” which would stand for “Pas, Pillen, Portemonnaie”. Even if you forget your cellphone, lose your bags, forget your tickets or something else happens. These are the main things to always look after, all else is a piece of luxury.

Making & receiving calls in the US

Most of the people I know have a cellphone of sorts, but aren’t necessarily aware of mobile networks that are used throughout the globe. Basically there are two main standards out there, one is called “Global System for Mobile Communications” (GSM), the other is called “Code Division Multiple Access” (CDMA). GSM seems to have a more dense coverage outside of North America (a couple of areas Asia are an exception), whereas CDMA is the common standard in the US.

Unfortunately both systems are not really compatible, and a lot of the folks from the US are wondering why the people using a GSM are going through the trouble of inserting and swapping out SIM cards. In this part I will just assume that you are currently using a GSM cellphone and are looking for an alternative.

Basically you have two options. One is getting a CDMA cellphone in the US. Since it’s uncommon to have the equivalent of a SIM-card, called a R-UIM card, for CDMA networks in the USA, you would need to get a phone that is linked to one carrier. If you want to use this option, it is important to check which carrier offers the best cellphone signal in the area that you will be visiting. Remember that signing up for a contract will be quite hard without a permanent address in the US, but perhaps you are able to work something out with friends/colleagues/family that you may know stateside. The other option is to just get a prepaid phone and use that.

If you plan on using your GSM cellphone while in the US, make sure that you have a phone that is able to use the appropriate frequencies. The GSM-850 and GSM-1900 bands are commonly used in America and in Canada, while the GSM-900 and GSM-1800 bands are usually used outside of those countries. Simply check on the website of your phone manufacturer to see which bands your mobile phone supports. If you are lucky it will actually be all four bands (commonly referred to as a quad-band cellphone) and you should be set to go. Since GSM is not a very common standard in the US, you will have a good chance of finding yourself using either Cingular, AT&T Wireless or T-Mobile USA.

Also, as a last tip, you could consider registering for a Google voice number and have it forward your calls to the prepaid number while you are in the USA, and forward calls to your regular cellphone number while you are back home. Just know that to change the settings while outside of the United States means using a proxy. This due to the fact that Google voice is only available in the US, and currently requires an invite. It’s slightly tricky to set up, but it could be a useful alternative.

Roaming charges

One thing to be extremely aware of when using your cellphone in the US is that you will be faced with roaming charges. Roaming is basically something that will allow you to use your phone on a network that is different from your own provider, or use your own provider in for example a different company. As you will probably already have guessed, this doesn’t come for free. Actually, it usually comes for quite the price. I would highly recommend checking the exact details with your carrier, but it is quite common that you will pay to receive calls. Basically the person making the call will pay for the cost up to the border of the country the caller is in, and you will pay for the call from that country up to the US. Check if it might make sense to upgrade your plan to include a flatrate to call to the US.

Another “feature” about roaming charges was introduced by using smartphones. These usually tend to rely heavily on a data connection, and most people find themselves having a flatrate for data connections. But be warned, this is usually not a flatrate outside of your own country! Things can get quite expensive really fast when you check your e-mails on your phone from a different country. Data is usually charged in chunks of 10 Kb and bills over €1.000,- can accumulate really fast. Turn data roaming off to prevent this, get a different plan, or another alternative could be to get a prepaid SIM in the US and use that to use a data connection. SIM cards from the US can for example be found on Ebay and will set you back around €5,- which might be a good alternative.

Charge it!

Having a lot of gadgets with you like your laptop, digital camera, cellphone means that you usually need to charge them on a regular basis. Easiest thing to do is check if they are able to automatically switch to the correct voltage. You will normally find something like 100v-240v written on the adapter or the device itself. If that is the case, you are in luck. You would just need a simple plug or socket converter and you can plug the device directly in the the socket once you are stateside.

If the device or adapter is not able to switch to the correct voltage, you might want to consider a so called “step up voltage converter”. I’ve had one with me on all my trips and it has been of great use to me. Just make sure that the output wattage is suitable for the device you are connecting to it.

Additionally having an extension cable and a USB cable can be of use. Lot’s of things can be charged via USB these days and it’s just handy to have one of those cables in your luggage. If you do happen to forget something, you can usually find an electronics store like Fry’s or BestBuy and get what you need there.

Being online

This topic has been covered in part by the roaming piece above. However, when using things like EDGE/UMTS/EVDO you are highly dependent on the reception of your cellphone. Having a Wi-Fi connection is a good way to reduce any roaming charges you might have and will get you a more stable connection. Besides that it’s usually also the faster option if you want to for example send over some pictures.

Usually hotels and motels will either offer you the option of using their Wi-Fi connection (for a surcharge) or have something like an internet PC. A laptop can be of use, and thankfully a fair amount of the hotels you will encounter will be able to offer you free Wi-Fi. If you are in doubt assume the worst and be prepared to pay for the connection or to be confronted with a screen that will have you enter your credit card or room details to charge you for the connection. One useful site to check out is wififreespot.com that will give you a rough overview of free Wi-Fi hotspots in the US. Pack an ethernet cable if you want to be on the safe side.

So in short?

Realize you are visiting the US and not a war zone. Usually you will be able to find everything you need when it comes to being online and staying in touch. Some advance planning will help you make your stay a bit easier. Things like a foreign SIM card or the voltage converter are a good help but not a necessity. Inform yourself about the roaming charges to avoid bad surprises. Oh, and most importantly, have some fun while you are there, be it a private or a business trip.


Update – March 30th 2010

Well, I am now back from a vacation in the US, where it was possible for me to use my own advice. And what do you know, one of the things that seemed to work so well isn’t actually working at all, but this was not a real problem.

I got the AT&T SIM card, filled it up and I could be reached by phone without a problem. The Google voice trick worked like a charm for me. The part that didn’t work was using the data part of the prepaid card. I tried it with an iPhone 3G and a BlackBerry Bold 9000 and both were unable to go online, both with the EDGE and 3G network that both phones found. The problem? According to an AT&T representative, AT&T uses proprietary cellular frequencies for their prepaid data plans in the US, which is why non-US phones simply aren’t able to get online with their prepaid cards. The only good thing? I was able to use the AT&T WiFi hotspots without any additional charge. I will be trying out the same trick with a T-Mobile prepaid card when I visit the US again next week and updating once more with my results.

As pointed out by Matt Simmons, you will have it easy when you visit one of the fast food chains and diners while you are there. A lot of chains like Denny’s, Mc Donalds, Burger King, Starbucks and the likes will offer you complimentary WiFi. I found that adding some of those hotspots to the wireless profiles in my BlackBerry to be quite useful. When driving through the cities my phone would suddenly start to vibrate because it automatically connected to the hotspots and was downloading my e-mails automatically.


Update – July 28th 2010

One more update. The T-Mobile card worked in the same manner as the AT&T card did. Unfortunately this didn’t really work, which might force me to change my strategy the next time I visit. If I do so I will be sure to update with a new post to see what might be the easiest solution.

On a different note, I just noticed via one of the comments that Fabio Rapposelli linked back to this article with some tips of his own on this subject. It includes a good list of tips that will help you in getting some decent food, how to pack and other stuff. Be sure to check out his post on this topic.

as a Service, General, GestaltIT

Jack of all trades, master of… the solution stack?

Stevie Chambers wrote something in a tweet last night. He stated the following:

The problem with an IT specialist is that he only gets to do the things he’s already good at, like building a coffin from the inside.

And my first thought was that he’s absolutely right. A lot of the people I know are absolute cracks or specialists in their own area. I’ll talk to the colleagues over in the Windows team, and they can tell you everything about the latest version of Windows and know each nook and cranny of their system. I’ll talk to the developers and they can write impossible stuff for their ABAP Web Dynpro installations.

But then I ask my developers what effect a certain OS parameter will have on their installation. Or perhaps how the read and write response times from the storage array in the back-end might influence the overall time an end user spends while he’s waiting for his batch job to complete. And you know what answer you get a lot of times? Just a blank stare, or if you are lucky some shoulders being shrugged. They’ll tell you that you need to talk to the experts in that area. It’s not their thing, and they don’t have the time, knowledge, interest or just simply aren’t allowed to help you in other areas.

So what about our changing environment? In environments where multiple tenants are common? Where we virtualize, thin provision and dedupe our installations and create pointer based copies of our systems? Where oversubscription might affect performance levels? Fact is that we are moving away from isolated solutions and moving toward a solution stack. We no longer care about the single installation of Linux on a piece of hardware, but need to troubleshoot how the database in our Linux VM interacts with our ESX installation and the connected thin provisioned disks.

In order to be an effective administrator I will need to change. I can’t be the absolute expert in all areas. The amount of information would just be overwhelming, and I wouldn’t have the time to master all of this. But being an expert in only one area will definitely not make my job easier in the future. We will see great value in generalists that have the ability to comprehend the interactions of the various components that make up a stack, and are able to do a deep dive when needed or can gather expertise for specific problems or scenarios when they need to.

Virtualization and the whole “* as a Service” model isn’t changing the way any of the individual components work, but they change the interconnect behavior. Since we are delivering new solutions as a stack, we also need to focus on troubleshooting the stack, and this can’t always be done in the classical approach. In a way this is a bigger change for the people supporting the systems than it is for the people actually using those systems.