New Media Year

We’re writing this column in the first week of January 2006, and both of us are therefore still recovering from the holiday festivities. The period between Christmas and New Year presents some interesting challenges for anyone working in the New Media, because like everyone else we’d like to take a good long break to refresh mind and body, but for a number of reasons this just isn’t possible. First, many of our clients want to launch their ‘sale’ sites either on Boxing Day or soon after, and second, web servers, firewalls, routers and the like don’t take time off at the end of December – they keep running (or, rather, we need to keep them running). Engineers and developers need to be on call throughout the Christmas and New Year period to take care of any problems, so let’s look at a few of the issues that surfaced during this holiday.

Home alone

One of the obvious ways to get people out of the office is to allow extra teleworking over the Christmas break period. (Holidays may be about not working, but some people actually appreciate a ready-made excuse to get away from their relatives, if only for a couple of hours.) However, teleworking raises some interesting, and possibly contentious, issues: it’s great for some people and certain types of work, but terrible for others. In particular, those who don’t have a room they can designate as an ‘office’ may face a level of distraction that seriously affects their productivity, especially if they have small children at home.

Successful teleworking demands a level of personal discipline that some people, perhaps great workers in the office, just don’t seem to possess. Paul’s rule of thumb is that you can spot a good teleworker by the state of their office desk – if it’s tidy, with everything filed away in drawers and cabinets, they’ll more than likely be good at working from home. Those who keep a chaotic desk, piled high with papers and files and whose surface last saw sunlight several years ago, will probably find it hard to be productive in a teleworking environment – they lack the focus needed to crack on with tasks and are easily distracted. No doubt, a few of you will disagree with this rule, especially those with untidy desks.

Another issue about teleworking is that, although it’s fine for people writing reports or updating websites, what about people who have to administer networks and servers? Can they telework too? Well, yes, to a certain extent – various remote access and administration products will enable them to monitor and control servers and services from a PC at home. But therein lies the rub. Network administration isn’t a nine-to-five job and servers can (indeed usually do) throw a hissy fit at any odd time of the day.

During normal working weeks, we have a rota of engineers on call around the clock, but what about over the holidays? Is there anything we can do to save the team from being tied to their home computers for eight-hour shifts? Yes there is: a new breed of software works via smartphones to enable comprehensive monitoring and control of the remote network. Next month, we’ll be looking at a couple of solutions that run on the BlackBerry platform. This software really frees network engineers from their remote PCs. It’s totally liberating to be able to add a new Active Directory user while taking a seaside walk, or to resize an SQL Server table column while doing the shopping (you can even check your logs while sitting on the loo).

Domestic differences

It’s while working at home that you start to notice the huge differences between domestic and enterprise IT environments. Take connectivity: to maintain a reliable Internet connection to an office or server farm, you’ll need to install multiple fast Internet connections, all served from separate locations and with carefully planned routes that ensure the various incoming lines go via separate exchanges and connection points. It’s quite complicated to set up and can be horrendously expensive to install and run. Compare this with the Net connections Paul has at home – ADSL supplied by BT, plus a cable modem feed supplied by NTL. They both take different routes, even entering the building from opposite ends, and all for a total monthly cost of about £70. Oh, and Paul recently got a letter from NTL saying that his 3Mb/sec cable connection was being upgraded to 10Mb/sec, but that its cost was being reduced from £38 to £35. That’s simply stunning value – a 10Mb/sec leased line to the same location would cost well into four figures per month.

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