Sysadmin blog As the year draws to a close, I'd like to take the time out to thank companies and individuals that have made my life as a writer, a systems administrator, and business owner easier in 2012. Readers of The Register - myself among them - are notorious for their endless cynicism and love of a right good digital kicking, but some companies, products and services in our industry do well by others and they deserve some recognition.
Influencing the influencers
Writing for The Register, I get to deal with a lot of PR and marketing folks. The number of press releases and so forth landing in my inbox is threatening to match that generated by my systems administration clients. Dealing with PRs is rarely fun - they are judged by how successful they are in convincing me to write a piece on their client's gear... I am notoriously lazy and their desperation can reach a fever pitch.
VMware stands out above the rest here. When I talk to them I use words like "vTax." I argue with the suits about licence-tiering. VMware's marketing folks - most notably Melanie Terbeek - have handled my ingratitude with aplomb. More importantly, they answer even my most difficult questions, including the ones I'm not supposed to ask. That sets them apart.
Supermicro has to be on my list. They may well be the busiest (or most understaffed) PR department on the planet, but they make a solid effort. Drobo gets a gold star here too. Their VP of technology even added me on Skype so I could pester him in real time with questions. Not the brightest move if you value your sanity, but it made sure I got a chance to test every single feature on that device.
Spiceworks has of course been amazing; they found time during the middle of their busiest week of the year to let me ask the brass hats uncomfortable questions and have worked with me to improve specific features in the application that bug me. EasyDNS and Ninite should get a mention here as well, for similar reasons.
Intel has been awesome this year. They have a byzantine, multi-tentacled marketing machine consisting of internal PR folks as well as various contractors. Both Intel insider Brian Johnson and PR contractor North of Nine Communications have been notably helpful. When I needed to cut through marketing and branding crap and get to the substance of the matter they delivered.
I mention these companies not to thank PR bodies for doing their jobs properly, but to recognise companies whose corporate culture allows their staff - and contractors - the freedom to answer the tough questions and work with people like myself who are deliberately never "on message".
As a systems administrator I find it far easier to trust companies that let their marketing and sales folks speak plainly. Banging on about being on message more than being proud of the products or companies you represent is always worrying. When company representatives are upfront and honest with me I am far more likely to believe that they are convinced their products compete on merit.
A stress free philosophy
While I find most software ultimately replaceable, Dragon, ComboFix, Hirens, DBAN, Housecall, Ninite, Puppet, Webmin, Teamviewer, Trillian, Notepad++, PuTTY, WinSCP, Navicat, Pocketcloud and Firefox's enormous library of plugins are all tools I am not sure I could live without. They are my list of 2012 "must have" tools and applications.
Microsoft's Small Business Server 2011 is a truly amazing product that I have grown to adore. I lament its brutal murder at the hands of Microsoft's ham-fisted licencing department. (No Microsoft, I will not be buying an Office 365 subscription.) I will continue to use the installs I have for as long as I possibly can.
The CyanogenMod, CentOS and Mint communities have produced excellent Linux distributions that make my life easier. CentOS has replaced Windows Server 2003 R2 as my go-to server OS, while Cinnamon Mint has become my desktop of choice. CyanogenMod has been my preferred mobile distribution (go team Hacksung!) I find it a lot more usable than stock ROMs or the ASOP.
VMware's 5.1 Essentials Plus offering has changed the way my clients do business. By bringing high availability and live VM backups down to a mostly reasonable price, smaller businesses are finally able to compete with larger enterprises. It has saved me a lot of time and grief; I appreciate the change in their tiering.
A special shout out to Classic Shell, Start8 and RetroUI for making Windows 8 just that little bit more palatable than being waterboarded by SCO lawyers using liquid Oracle licences. Thanks guys; it makes more of a difference than you'll ever know.
At your service
The beginning of 2012 involved a major reorganisation of my employer, including closing two locations and engaging a distributed, work-at-home workforce. Our ageing phone systems had to be replaced, and SIP provider Planet Telecom stepped up to the plate.
The last thing that I want to do when I am done fixing all my clients' computers is spend time fixing my own. I turned to Google Apps to provide my company's e-mail hosting and productivity suite. So far it has been excellent; quite a bit less stress than the Office 365 installations I maintain for some of my clients. The inclusion of Mobile Device Management for Android users as a freebie for business users was greatly appreciated.
Wave accounting is another fine cloud service. Intuit's online store in perpetually broken; if we can't buy their product we can't evaluate it or use it. Sage Accounting's store worked, but I really wish it hadn't. A few months of use had one of our number in tears; it ultimately proved less effort and frustration to move a year's worth of books to Wave than continue trying to beat Simply into submission. Bonus points for being a Canadian company; helps put to bed any legal issues that might exist if we dealt with an American outfit.
Year of transition
2012 is the year I broke the client-server tether. While not an intentional transition on my part, I have slowly moved towards Android devices as my primary endpoints. I live in various RDP sessions most of the time, but am seeing cloudy SaaS applications creep in at the edges. While I still use Firefox as my primary browser - I don't like browsing the internet without shields - Chrome has started to see far more front line use. Sometimes I need a website to "just work," even if that means risking things crawling through my browser.
With the exception of Outlook 2003 still kicking along in my home Windows XM VM, I've almost kicked the Office habit. Libre Office has matured enough that the last time I wiped my PCs arguing with an Indian call centre representative to have my Office activations reset just didn't seem worth it. I started the year off with Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 and have ended it with VMware 5.1 Essentials Plus.
How I use computers has changed; to some extent it has been a natural progression driven by necessity. Some of it has been exposure to new things thanks to all the press releases that land in my inbox. A lot of the change, however, is driven by The Register's excellent readership.
Our beloved commentards certainly do not hesitate to make their voices heard. Whether it be insightful analysis, a helpful email to the author or stinging criticism, I learn a lot from our readers. A lot of interesting tools and services I ultimately adopt I heard about in the forums first. So to the our readers, thank you. If you have the time, fill up the comments section below with your take on the best tools, products, services and people of 2012. Share your tales of woe and the unexpected moments of awesome; who knows, maybe your comments will help change what we end up using next year. ®