AWS embraces hybrid cloud? Meet Snowball Edge

Amazon has announced Snowball Edge, an on-premises appliance that supports Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud), AWS Lambda (“serverless” computing) and S3 (Simple Storage Service), all running locally.

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Sounds like Microsoft’s Azure Stack? A bit, but the AWS appliance is tiny by comparison and therefore more limited in scope. Nevertheless, it is a big turnaround for the company, which has previously insisted that everything belongs in the cloud. One of the Snowball Edge case studies is the same general area as one used by Microsoft for Azure Stack: ships.

The specifications are shy about revealing what is inside, but there is 100TB storage (82TB usable), 10GB, 20GB and 40GB network connections (GBase-T, SFP+ and QSFP+), size is 259x671x386mm (pretty small), and power consumption 400 watts.

Jeff Barr’s official blog post adds that there is an “Intel Xeon D processor running at 1.8 GHz, and supports any combination of instances that consume up to 24 vCPUs and 32 GiB of memory.”

You can cluster Snowball Edge appliances though so substantial systems are possible.

Operating systems currently supported are Ubuntu Server and CentOS7.

Amazon’s approach is to extend its cloud to the edge rather than vice versa. You prepare your AMIs (Amazon Machine Instances) in the cloud before the appliance is shipped. The very fast networking support shows that the intent is to maintain the best possible connectivity, even though the nature of the requirement is that internet connectivity in some scenarios will be poor.

A point to note is that whereas the documentation emphasises use cases where there are technical advantages to on-premises (or edge) computing, Barr quotes instead a customer who wanted easier management. A side effect of the cloud computing revolution is that provisioning and managing cloud infrastructure is easier than with systems (like Microsoft’s System Center) designed for on-premises infrastructure. Otherwise they would not be viable. Having tasted what is possible in the cloud, customers want the same for on-premises.

Using the Xamarin WebView for programmatic display of HTML content

Xamarin Forms is a key framework for C# and .NET developers since it lets you target Android, iOS and to some extent Windows (UWP and therefore Windows 10 only) with maximum code reuse. I have a longstanding interest in embedded web browser controls and was glad to see that Xamarin Forms supports a capable WebView control. The WebView wraps Chrome on Android, Safari on iOS, and Edge on UWP.

I did a quick hands-on. In this example (running in the Android emulator on Hyper-V, of course), the HTML is generated programmatically and the CSS loaded from local storage. I also added some script to show the User Agent string that identifies the browser.

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There are a few things needed to make this work. Some XAML to put the WebView on a page. Then to load content into the WebView you need an HTMLWebViewSource object. If you are loading external files, you must set the BaseUrl property of this object as well as the HTML itself. The BaseUrl tells the control where to look for files that have a relative address. This varies according to the target platform, so you use the Xamarin Forms Dependency Service to set it correctly for each platform.

In Visual Studio, you place the files you want to load in the appropriate folder for each platform. For Android, this is the Assets folder.

That is about all there is to it. As you can see from the above screenshot, I wrote very little code.

The WebView control can also display PDF documents. Finally, there is an EvaluateJavaScriptAsync method that lets you call JavaScript in a WebView and read the results from C#.

This JavaScript bridge is a workaround for the most obvious missing feature, that you cannot directly read the HTML content from the WebView. If this is a full programmatic solution and you generate all the HTML yourself, you can add JavaScript to do what you want. If the user is allowed to navigate anywhere on the web, you cannot easily grab the HTML; but this could be a good thing, in case the user entered a password or is viewing confidential data. You can grab the destination URL from the Navigating event and read it separately if necessary. But the intent of the control is to let you create rich applications that take advantage of the browser’s ability to render content, not to invade a user’s privacy by tracking their web browsing.

Configuring the Android emulator for Hyper-V

Great news that the Android emulator now supports Hyper-V, but how do you enable it?

Pretty simple. First, you have to be running at least Windows 10 1803 (April 2018 update). Then, go into Control Panel – Programs – Turn Windows Features on and off and enabled both Hyper-V and the Windows Hypervisor Platform:

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Note: this is not the same as just enabling Hyper-V. The Windows Hypervisor Platform, or WHPX, is an API for Hyper-V. Read about it here.

Reboot if necessary and run the emulator.

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TroubleshootIng? Try running the emulator from the command line.

emulator -list-avds

will list your AVDs.

emulator @avdname -qemu -enable-whpx

will run the AVD called avdname using WHPX (Windows Hypervisor Platform). If it fails, you may get a helpful error message.

Note: If you get a Qt library not found error, use the full path to the emulator executable. This should be the one in the emulator folder, not the one in the tools folder. The full command is:

[path-to-android-sdk]\emulator\emulator @[avdname] -qemu -enable-whpx

You can also use the emulator from Visual Studio, though you need Visual Studio 2017 version 15.8 Preview 1 or higher with the Xamarin tools installed. That said, I had some success with starting the Hyper-V emulator separately (use the command above), then using it with a Xamarin project in Visual Studio 15.7.5.

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Hyper-V compatible Android emulator now available

An annoying issue for Android developers on Windows is that the official Android emulator uses Intel’s HAXM hypervisor platform, which is incompatible with Microsoft’s Hyper-V.

The pain of dual-boot just to run the Android emulator is coming to an end. Google has announced that the latest release of the Android Emulator will support Hyper-V on both AMD and Intel PCs. This a relief to Docker users, for example, since Docker now uses Hyper-V by default.

Google Product Manager Jamal Eason has made a rather confusing post, positioning the new feature as mainly for the benefit of developers with AMD processors. Intel HAXM does not work with AMD processors.”Thanks to on-going development by Intel, the fastest emulator performance on Windows is still with Intel HAXM,” says Eason, stating that HAXM remains the default on Intel PCs and is recommended.

However the new Hyper-V support works fine on Intel as well as AMD PCs. The official docs say:

Though we recommend using HAXM on Windows, it is possible to use Windows Hypervisor Platform (WHPX) with the emulator. Situations in which you should use WHPX with the emulator are the following:

  • You need to use Hyper-V at the same time.
  • You are using an AMD CPU.

The new feature is “thanks to a new Microsoft Windows Hypervisor Platform (WHPX) API and recent open-source contributions from Microsoft,” says Eason.

It is another case of Microsoft doing the hard work to make Windows a better platform for developers, even when they are targeting non-Windows platforms (as is increasingly the case).

Microsoft announces free version of Teams, ahead of Inspire partner conference

Microsoft’s partner conference, Inspire, kicks off in Las Vegas next week; and as part of the event the company has announced big news concerning Teams: a free version.

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What is Teams? It is a collaboration tool for Office 365, or at least it was, since the new free version can be used with any email address and without Office 365. Here is what you get:

  • Chat
  • Audio and video calling
  • 10GB online storage, plus 2GB for each additional team member (SharePoint/OneDrive)
  • Word, Excel and PowerPoint online
  • Ability to install unlimited additional applications

Teams is a strategic product for Microsoft – see here for the reason. A free version is way for the company to promote Office 365, and you will see an upgrade link in the user interface.

There are also new features coming to Teams. One seems minor, but will be popular. It deals with the problem of video conferencing from home, and not being sure what may happen behind you. You may remember this:

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So now Teams video conferencing will let you blur the background. Here is Raanah Amjadi, Marketing Manager, Microsoft Teams, demonstrating the feature:

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In addition, Teams is getting a new Live Events feature. This is where you broadcast a presentation or meeting to others in your company. Automatic speech-to-text will do close captions (so you can watch with the sound done, if you trust it enough), and this then enables text search of the event with index points into the video. Bing Translate is also included in Teams so you can have multi-lingual conversations.

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Microsoft Workplace Analytics is getting enhancements including “My Analytics” which will give you AI-powered “nudges” in Outlook online. I am not sure I trust this to be much real-world use; but the example shown was intriguing: alert you if you try to schedule a meeting with someone out of their working hours.

Whiteboard, a collaboration canvas, is now generally available for Windows 10 and mobile.

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Free Teams is available immediately here.

Account options when setting up Windows 10, and Microsoft’s enforced insecurity questions

How do you sign into Windows 10? There are now four options. I ran through a Windows 10 setup using build 1803 (which was released in April this year) and noted how this has evolved. Your first decision: is this a personal or organisational PC?

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If you choose Setup for an organisation, you will be prompted to sign into Office 365, also known as Azure AD. The traditional Domain join, for on-premises Active Directory, has been shunted to a less visible option (the red encircling is mine). In larger organisations, this tends to be automated anyway.

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But this one is personal. It is a similar story. You are prompted to sign in with a Microsoft account, but there is another option, called an Offline account (again, the red circle is mine).

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This “Offline account” was in Windows 7 and earlier the only option for personal accounts. I still recommend having an administrative “offline account” set up so you can always be sure of being able to log into your PC, even without internet. Think about some of the scenarios. Someone might hack your Microsoft account, change your password, and now you cannot even log onto your PC. Unless you have an offline account.

I’ve been awkward and selected Offline account. Windows, or rather Microsoft, does not like it. Note the mind games in the screenshot below. Although I’ve made a positive selection for Offline account, the default and highlighted option now is to change my mind. I do not like this.

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Now I can set up my offline account. A screen prompts for a username, then for a password, all the time nagging that I should create an online account instead.

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I type and confirm the password; but now I get this:

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Yes, I have to create “security questions”, with no option to skip. If you try to skip, you get a “This field is required” message. Worse still, they are from a pre-selected list:

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I really hate this. These are not security questions; they are insecurity questions. Their purpose is to let me (or someone else) reset the password, forming a kind of back door into the PC. The information in the questions is semi-secret; not impossible for someone determined to discover. So Microsoft is insisting that I make my account less secure.

Of course you do not have to give honest answers. You can call your first pet yasdfWsd9gAg!!hea. But most people will be honest.

Does it matter, given that a PC account offers rather illusory security anyway? Unless you encrypt the hard drive, someone who steals the PC can reset the password by booting into Linux, or take out the disk and read it from another PC. All true; but note that Microsoft makes it rather easy to encrypt your PC with Bitlocker, in which case the security is not so illusory.

Just for completeness, here is what comes next, an ad for Cortana:

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Hey Cortana! How do I delete my security answers?

I do get why Microsoft is doing this. An online account is better in that settings can roam, you can use the Store, and you can reset the password from one PC to restore access to another. The insecurity questions could be a life-saver for someone who forgot their password and need to get back into their PC.

But such things should be optional. There is nothing odd about wanting an offline account.

Surface Go: Microsoft has another go at a budget tablet

Microsoft has announced Surface Go, a cheaper, smaller model to sit at the budge end of its Surface range of tablets and laptops.

The new model starts at $399, will be available for pre-order today in selected territories, and ships on August 2nd.

In the UK, the Surface Go is £379 inc VAT for 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, or £509.99 inc VAT for 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.

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I go back a long way with Surface, having been at the launch of the first device, Surface RT, back in 2012. The device was a flop, but I liked it. The design was genuinely innovative and sought to make sense of a Windows in transition from desktop-only to a viable touch/tablet device. It failed primarily because of the poor range of available apps, lack of user acceptance for Windows 8, and somewhat underpowered hardware. There were also keyboard issues: the fabric-based Touch keyboard was difficult to use because it gave no tactile feedback, and the Type keyboard less elegant and still somewhat awkward.

Surface Pro came next, and while it was more useful thanks to full Windows 8 and an Intel Core i5 CPU, it was disappointing, with battery life issues and a tendency to stay on in your bag, overheating and wasting battery. There were other niggling issues.

The big disappointment of Surface for me is that even with full, Apple-like control over hardware and software, the devices have not been trouble-free.

Another issue today is that Windows 10 is not designed for touch in the same way as Windows 8. Therefore you rarely see Windows tablets used as tablets; they are almost always used as laptops, even if they are 2-in-1 devices. The original kickstand design is therefore rather pointless. If I got another Surface it would be a Surface Laptop or Surface Book.

Of course they are not all bad. It is premium hardware and some of the devices are delightful to use and perform well. They are expensive though, and I suggest careful comparison with what you can get for the same money from partners like HP, Lenovo and others.

What about this one? Key specs:

  • 10″ screen, kickstand design
  • 1800 x 1200 (217 PPI) resolution
  • 8.3mm thick
  • USB-C 3.1 port, MicroSD, headphone jack socket
  • Intel® Pentium® Gold Processor 4415Y
  • Windows Hello camera supporting face-recognition log in
  • Up to nine hours battery life
  • Intel® HD Graphics 615
  • Display supports Surface Pen with 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity
  • Signature Type Cover with trackpad supporting 5-point gestures
  • Windows Hello face authentication camera (front-facing)
  • 5.0 MP front-facing camera with 1080p Skype HD video
  • 8.0 MP rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD video
  • Single microphone
  • 2W stereo speakers with Dolby® Audio™ Premium

It sounds a great deal for £379 or $399 but you will pay more, for three reasons:

  • The base spec is minimal in terms of RAM and SSD storage and you will want the higher model
  • The Type Cover is essential and will cost – a Pro Type Cover is $159.99 and this may be a bit less
  • The Surface Pen is £99.99 or $99.99

This means your $399 will soon be $550 or more.

It could still be a good deal if it turns out to be a nice device. The Hello camera is a plus point, but where I would particularly recommend a Surface is if you want Pen support. Microsoft is good at this. Unfortunately I do not get on well with pen input, but some people do, and for artists and designers it is a real advantage.

Ubuntu goes minimal (but still much bigger than Alpine Linux), cosies up to Google Cloud Platform

Ubuntu has announced “Minimal Ubuntu”, a cut-down server image designed for containerised deployments. The Docker image for Minimal Ubuntu 18.04 is 29MB:

Editors, documentation, locales and other user-oriented features of Ubuntu Server have been removed. What remains are only the vital components of the boot sequence.  Images still contain ssh, apt and snapd so you can connect and install any package you’re missing. The unminimize tool lets you ‘rehydrate’ your image into a familiar Ubuntu server package set, suitable for command line interaction.

says Canonical.

29MB is pretty small; but not as small as Alpine Linux images, commonly used by Docker, which are nearer 5MB. Of course these image sizes soon increase when you add the applications you need.

I pulled Ubuntu 18.04 from Docker Hub and the image size is 31.26MB so this hardly seems a breakthrough.

Canonical quotes Paul Nash, Group Product Manager for Google Cloud Platform, in its press release. The image is being made available initially for Amazon EC2, Google Compute Engine, LXD, and KVM/OpenStack. The kernel has been optimized for each deployment, so the downloadable image is optimized for KVM and slightly different than the AWS or GCP versions.

Pusher: a nice solution for sending messages and notifications to web and mobile apps

Pusher is a London company which runs cloud services for publish/subscribe in web and mobile applications. The idea is to deliver real-time updates, a concept that has many use cases. Examples include price updates in finance apps, status updates to track a delivery, news updates, or anything where users want to monitor progress or keep in touch with fast-moving developments.

The service passed my “get up and running quickly” test. I created a free account (limited to 100 connections and 200k messages per day) and a new channel:

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I’m guessing it runs on AWS, looking at the datacentre locations:

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I chose a JavaScript client and ASP.NET MVC for the back end. On my PC I pasted the JavaScript into a web page running locally on Apache (in Windows Subsystem for Linux). I also created a new ASP.NET MVC project and added the sample code with some trivial modifications. I was able to send a message to the web page; it triggers an annoying alert but of course you could easily amend this to update the UI in more user-friendly ways.

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Of course you could roll your own solution for this but what you get with Pusher is all the plumbing pre-done for many different clients and automatic scalability.

Pusher also has a service called Beams (formerly Push Notifications) which lets you send notifications to Android and IOS apps.

Pusher or roll your own? As with many cloud services, you are putting a high level of trust in Pusher (security and reliability) if you use the service, and you will need a paid subscription:

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You are saving considerable development time though, and as Google and Apple update their SDKs or change the rules, Pusher will presumably adapt accordingly.

Can Azure easily do this, I wondered? I headed over to Azure Notification Hubs. I noticed that the amount of admin you have to do to support each device is greater. Second, Microsoft promised to support “push to web” in March 2016:

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… but has not done so nor even bothered to update those asking:

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It is odd that Microsoft, with all its drive behind Azure, is still in the habit of leaving customers in the dark in certain areas.

Notes from the Field: dmesg error blocks MySQL install on Windows Subsystem for Linux

I enjoy Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) on Windows 10 and use it constantly. It does not patch itself so from time to time I update it using apt-get. The latest update upgraded MySQL to version 5.7.22 but unfortunately the upgrade failed. The issue is that dpkg cannot configure it. I saw messages like:

invoke-rc.d: could not determine current runlevel

2002: Can’t connect to local MySQL server through socket ‘/var/run/mysqld/mysqld.sock

After multiple efforts uninstalling and reinstalling I narrowed the problem down to a dmesg error:

dmesg: read kernel buffer failed: Function not implemented

It is true, dmesg does not work on WSL. However there is a workaround here that says if you write something to /dev/kmsg then at least calling dmesg does not return an error. So I did:

sudo echo foo > /dev/kmsg

Removed and reinstalled MySQL one more time and it worked:

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Apparently partial dmesg support in WSL is on the way, previewed in Build 17655.

Note: be cautious about fully uninstalling MySQL if you have data you want to preserve. Export/backup the databases first.

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