Virtualization, Cloud, Infrastructure and all that stuff in-between

My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together

Category Archives: Work

SpinVox: The Future of Voicemail

 

SpinVox is changing the game for busy people..

I don’t know about you but I tend to treat my mobile (USA:cellphone) phone as my personal contact device, in that I use it to manage both my inbound and outbound communications and plug that into my daily work/life workflow.

Because I travel about a lot for business (and in my spare time also) I give everyone my mobile number, rather than a fixed line as its far more likely to reach me and I don’t have to track numerous voicemail/UM numbers, I also gain a unified call log and history on a single device so I can refer back over time to find numbers I would have otherwise lost.

I have a fax to email service for the same reason for the odd occasion I need to receive a fax… I can get it anywhere and file it electronically.

However the fact that people have my mobile number does not (for me at least) set the expectation that I will be at their beck and call, or answer on demand – I make use of caller ID to screen my calls, I’ll make no secret of that; I manage my workflow during the day and quite often other people’s sense of “urgent” is different from my own [unless you are actually my boss of course – when your calls will usually be answered directly], and at the end of the day I need to balance the needs (…of the many) people who want me to do something for them, and my ability to actually do so and carry on with my day to day workload.

So for example people that ring from lines with withheld numbers will almost always be allowed to go to voicemail, unless I am expecting such a call; I know most people have no control over corporate switchboards but I’ve never understood the logic of withholding caller-ID, especially from a large organisation as you can make the number almost anything, even a central or local office switchboard number if you don’t want to expose people’s regional DDI’s. it also works to their advantage as I’ll be better prepared to speak to them if I know what they want to know – clever as I am I don’t always know everything off the top of my head!

This often means I have a fair number of voicemail’s building up to listen to, and unfortunately more often than not the spare time I have to listen to the messages is whilst on a train or car when I don’t have a pen handy to jot down that number – or am more likely to leave the number written on the copy of the metro on the train.

Now, this is where I’ve found Spinvox really useful in the last couple of weeks; it’s essentially a paid-for service that you use to replace your normal o2/Vodafone/etc. voicemail service. you change your divert on busy/unavailable settings to point at an assigned geographical number (in my case in 0208 one, so it’s inclusive in any bundled minutes your tariff includes rather than a national rate 0870, 0845 etc.).

It offers the normal voicemail features where you can call a special number (again geographical, rather than national-rate etc.) to listen to the actual messages and set your greeting message etc.

But the advantage of SpinVox is it’s ability to convert the speech into text, which can be delivered to you either as an SMS text message or an email (my preference).

I was a bit skeptical at first, but I was very, very impressed after using the 7 day free trial. so much so that at one point I doubted that there was any technology behind it at all and that they were employing a large battery of English speaking monkeys to listen in and type it all up… their website assures me that this isn’t the case and they use a tiered architecture of several speech-text engines depending on the content as some are better at number recognition etc. (can’t find the original link to that article so will keep digging)

It also does an excellent job of transcribing phone numbers and extracts the caller-ID from the caller if it’s available so no hunting around for that elusive pen!

If there is a word in the message Spinvox can’t transcribe or has made a guess at it marks it with a “____” or (?) and if you want to hear the subtle intonation of the person who left the message, each message includes a quick code so you just dial the Spinvox retreival number and key in *03 for example and it will replay the message – a godsend compared to the usual next, next, next drudge with most voicemail systems.

For example – here is a real message left for me.. (names and numbers changed to protect the innocent, but if you really can do my extension cheaper than they can – please do call :)).

You received a new voicemail from +4420812312312:

———-

“Hi there Vinf my name is Bob. I’m calling from a company called XYZ Construction. We received your details via our website regarding your extension. I was wondering if you could give me a call back when you get the message. My telephone no. is 0800123123, in order to discuss the project further. Thank you, bye.”

– spoken through SpinVox

———-

Message received at May 8, 2008 1:25:55 PM

If you wish to listen to this message, call your voicemail on +44207xxxxxxx and press *08

For assistance, see www.spinvox.com or email service@spinvox.com

Thank you,

SpinVox

So, back to the point; email delivery of the text content of voicemail messages into my Outlook Inbox allows me to flag, follow-up, set reminders, file, delete etc. and integrate them into my normal daily workflow so I ensure I can manage any resulting actions.

Previously I’ve found where I have had a large number of unheard voicemail messages (due to holiday or long meetings) it takes longer than I’d like to listen to them all; as they often overlap or are irrelevant due to the elapsed time and let’s be honest people (myself included) tend to ramble when they are leaving information in brain-freewheeling mode on an answer machine, or just say it’s X – call me back, which isn’t all that helpful.

So dealing with such a pile of messages, especially when compared to the quick gratification of dealing with normal emails – where you can scan, easily re-read and file, mark for follow-up etc. means dealing with voicemail often fell to the bottom of my priority pile. This, in turn means I risk missing that one important message or take longer to respond to people (yeah I’m a fickle sort of guy – make my life easier and I’ll get back to you quicker… I’m sure I’m not the only one)

In meetings, it’s also ideal – because they’re delivered as SMS or email they also turn up on my Blackberry so I can glance at them during the meeting and make a value/balance decision on wether I should step outside to respond. Doing this in 1:1 meetings might be a bit rude as someone is dedicating their time for your use. But for larger meetings or conferences where you are not always involved or contributing to everything it’s a discrete way of making a judgement call on what requires your current attention.

image Overall I’m very impressed, sometimes I’ve seen it take up to 10mins to deliver a converted message (maybe there really are monkeys involved :)), and it’s a bit annoying that the caller (on my o2 network anyway) gets a “your call is being diverted, please hold..” message rather than just cutting to Spinvox as it does with o2’s own voicemail service – but I guess that’s a network feature rather than Spinvox and it’s not a huge deal.

The billing is interesting, and to be honest I think a little bit unclear, as you are basically signed up once your 7 day trial is finished and I’ve not really had any visibility of how they bill other than a message on the last day of the trial saying my account had been charged £5, call customer services otherwise. I can only assume it’s doing this via reverse-SMS billing – for me, this is handy rather than having to manage another subscription and set of card details, however I could see that bothering some people.

Note: I have a “company phone” and don’t always see the bills, so I’ll probably be expecting a call from accounts at the end of the month to query it!

Another use which I hadn’t thought of is for deaf and people with hearing problems, this is ideal as they often make heavy use of text and email to exchange information as they are often unable to call people directly as not everyone has a minicom type setup, I see they are offering text to speech services

They also have a variety of blog/social network interfaces on the way; I don’t think these would be much use for me, but you never know… it takes a while to type these things up, but I’m pretty sure it’s clearer if I’m forced to think about what I’m writing than if I were allowed to ramble at a translator 🙂

In summary it’s an excellent service, and one that I would be happy to pay for myself (even if the billing process is a little unclear, to me and the other user’s I’ve polled anyway) I wonder how long before this technology is adopted by the carriers themselves… it’s got to be the next step, everyone I know hates normal voicemail. most current Unified Messaging systems I’ve seen don’t offer this type of functionality, they’re still geared towards dealing with audio content.

Lastly, one feature that could be quite useful is a web based system for listening to the actual voicemail messages from a PC, rather than dialling into the Spinvox system – although I wonder if I really would use this, it’s so accurate in converting the audio!

Steve Richards blog on work/life balance has a good post on dealing with email overload, that could be extended to take on management of voicemail if you combined it with SpinVox as I mention above – it all ends up in one place which allows you to manage it… rather than drown in it.

I’m not the only one finding it useful, some further reading from other SpinVox Users…

http://www.atmasphere.net/wp/archives/2008/05/14/with-spinvox-im-reading-your-voicemail

http://darlamack.blogs.com/darlamack/2008/05/how-did-i-live.html

http://www.womworld.com/nokia/3305/spinvox-a-lifeline-for-busy-users/

http://davestronach.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/spinvox-voicemail-to-text/

Running ESX 3.5 and 3i Under VMWare Workstation 6.5 Beta Build 91182

 

Following on from my earlier post I upgraded my installation to the new build of 6.5. it un-installed the old build and re-installed the latest without a problem, took about 30mins and required a reboot of the host OS.

All my previously suspended XP/2003 VM’s resumed ok without a restart but needed an upgrade to the VMTools which did require a restart of the guest OS – all completed with no problems.

Now, onto installing ESX….

I used the settings from Eric’s post here to edit my .vmx file

ethernet0.virtualDev = “e1000”

monitor.virtual_exec = “hardware”
monitor_control.restrict_backdoor = “true”

Note – you need to select an x64 Linux version from the VM type drop down, if you have to go back and change it via the GUI after you’ve edited the .vmx file it overwrites the Ethernet card “e1000” setting to “vlance” so you need to edit again otherwise the ESX installer won’t find a compatible NIC and won’t install.

it was initially very slow to boot; 5mins on my dual core laptop with only one error – which was expected..

imageimage

To improve the performance I changed my installation to run the non-debug version of the Workstation binaries (rename the vmware-vmx.exe to vmware-vmx-debug.exe)

note: this isn’t recommended unless you know what you are doing, VMWare will rely on the output from the debug version of the code if you need to report any issues)

It also seems to work for the installable version of ESX 3i… (although I’ve not quite figured out the point of that version yet :)).

image

Install prompt

image

it did fail with an error the 1st time round..

image

this was because I had specified an IDE disk as per the ESX instructions, I changed it to a SCSI one and it worked ok.

image

Finished..

imageimage 

The ESX 3i install has a footprint of about 200Mb on disk, and ESX 3.5 uses 1.5Gb.

I’m going to keep the 3.5 install on my laptop and will try to use linked clones to maintain a couple of different versions/configs to save disk space.. I’m sure I could knock up a quick script to change the hostname/IP of each clone – if I do I’ll post it here.

Why would you want to do this? well because you can, of course 🙂 and its handy for testing patch updates and scripts for ESX management etc.

I will  also try to get a ESX DRS cluster running under workstation with a couple of ESX hosts and shared storage over iSCSI using something like OpenFiler as shown here. won’t exactly be production performance, but useful for testing and demo’ing.

New VMWare Workstation 6.5 Build(s) and ability to run ESX 3.5

 

As a result of this post from Eric Sloof I note there is a new build of Workstation 6.5 available; I hadn’t noticed this as I haven’t had much time to follow the forums and my beta/RC (as used in this post and installed here is build 84113) hasn’t notified me there is a new release as all the previous 4.x/5.x beta’s have.

Oddly I checked this morning before I saw Eric’s post and it reported no new builds available – assume this is because its still a beta programme.

Anyway – if you downloaded the previous build before 14th May then go to this page and you can update your registration for the new build (below).

image

I’ll be trying this out in the coming week and hopefully will be able to get ESX running on my laptop under VMWare Workstation (very handy mobile demo platform).

Deleting a Virtual Machine from Virtual Center and Disk

 

If you deploy your VM’s from a master image using Virtual Center’s Deploy from template functionality (below).

image

When you try and delete a virtual machine you’ve created from disk

image 

You get the following prompt

Are you sure you want to delete this VM and it’s associated base disk?

Please note if other VMs are sharing this base disk, they will no longer have access to this disk.

image

This does not refer to the master VM image you deployed from; in other words if you delete the VM it does not break all other VMs deployed from the initial template.

One other point to note, when you perform “Deploy virtual machine from template” operation, the target field (below) is actually the name of the base image you are cloning, rather than the name of the eventual VM you are creating from it – odd, but that’s how it is (below)

image

Solid Sate SAN, Storage vMotion and VMWare – HSM for your VMs

 

You’ve been able to buy solid state SAN technology like the Tera-RAMSAN from TMS which gives you up to 1Tb of storage, presented over 4Gb/s fibre channel or Infiniband @10Gb/s… with the cost of flash storage dropping its going to soon fall in to the realms of affordability (from memory a year ago 1Tb SSD SAN was about £250k, so would assume that’s maybe £150k now – would be happy to see current pricing if anyone has it though).

If you were able to combine this with a set of ESX hosts dual-connected to the RAMSAN and traditional equipment (like an HP EVA or EMC Clariion) over a FC or iSCSI fabric then you could possibly leverage the new Storage vMotion features that are included in ESX 3.5 to achieve a 2nd level of performance and load levelling for a VM farm.

image

It’s pretty common knowledge that you can use vMotion and the DRS features to effectively load level or average VM CPU and memory load across a number of VMWare nodes within a cluster.

Using the infrastructure discussed above could add a second tier of load balancing without downtime to a DRS cluster. If a VM needs more disk throughput or is suffering from latency then you could move them to/from the more expensive solid-state storage tiers to FC-SCSI or even FATA disks, this ensures you are making the best use of fast, expensive storage vs. cheap, slow commodity storage.

Even if Virtual Center doesn’t have a native API for exposing this type of functionality or criteria for the DRS configuration you could leverage the plug-in or scripting architecture to use a manager of managers (or here) to map this across an enterprise and across multiple hypervisors (Sun, Xen, Hyper V)

I also see EMC integrating flash storage into the array itself, would be even better if you could transparently migrate LUNS to/from different arrays and disk storage without having to touch ESX at all.

Note: This is just a theory I’ve not actually tried this – but am hoping to get some eval kit and do a proof on concept…

Misc bits of Useful, Recent VMWare News

 

I’ve been really busy the last couple of weeks and I’ve had to trim down my incoming RSS feeds, as there was too much noise and I was missing important things like the following;

  • Scott Lowe’s summary of sessions from VMWare’s partner Exchange, some useful information on Site Recovery Manger
  • The new VMWare Certified Design Expert (VCDX) certification – next step up from VCP, will have to have a look into it now I’ve finally managed to re-schedule my cancelled QA course – official VM announcement here.
  • Official Microsoft Clustering Support with ESX 3.5 Update 1 here
  • Some workarounds for deploying Windows Server 2008 with virtual center here – would have been nice if support was in an official update from VMWare soon; it’s not like it’s been beta’ing for a while is it (errr!)

Lifecycle Manager, Site Recovery Manager and Stage Manager Released

 

Linkage here.

VMWare are shaping up to have a really good set of management tools – lab and site recovery manager are of particular interest to me for several projects I’m working on.

VMWare Workstation 6.5 Beta – Run Multiple Copies of Outlook/Exchange via Unity

 

I use a single laptop for my day-day use, it has all the stuff i need, I run Vista and Office 2007, for our corporate mail we use Exchange like everyone else and I use Outlook Cached Mode to work online/offline..

My own personal email is also an Exchange mailbox – provided by fasthosts (why – well, because..ok?) the problem with this is that I can’t have a single copy of Outlook connected to more than one Exchange server at the same time or run multiple instances of Outlook (I’ve tried all the hacks and Thinstall etc.), and to be honest even if I could it would probably violate the security policies of all the involved organisations as it would be quite simple for an Outlook-aware worm to try to propagate itself across multiple organisations or harvest confidential details.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that I often work on long-term customer projects and have to have a mailbox on their Exchange system as well… which leads to multiple diary sync nightmare, maybe I’ll blog about that some other time).

So at present I have 4 Exchange mailboxes that I need to keep track of, auto-forwarding mail between them is a no-no, I used to be an Exchange admin and I’ve lost many bank holidays due to corporate->Hotmail NDR mail loops!

So, up until now I’ve had to run one full Outlook client and multiple OWA clients in a browser, which is ok as long as I’m connected to the Internet, but no good if I’m on a train unless I want to close and restart Outlook with multiple profiles, which is a pain especially when you are collaborating on a project between multiple organisations. To be honest as good as OWA 2003 is it’s no substitute for a full outlook client. (still waiting for Fasthosts to go to Exchange 2007, oh and enable EAS!).

So, anyway a solution – VMWare Unity, this is a feature like Parallels for the Mac which lets you “float” an application window out of a guest VM to the host desktop meaning you can use the applications without working within a single VM’d desktop window.

VMWare Fusion also has the same feature, but Workstation 6.5 is the 1st time its been available on the PC platform.

To use Unity you need to have upgraded the virtual machine to 6.5 “hardware” by right clicking on the VM in the sidebar pane (below) and install the latest VM Tools – it also only seems to support XP at present, or at least it didn’t work on the Server 2003 VM I had.

image image

Boot the VM… and install the latest VM tools.

image image

VM Workstation Screen – note VM is set to “Unity mode”

imageimage 

My Vista desktop (yes, I have the start bar at the right hand side – widescreen laptop!) with the popup menu for the VM, showing all the start menu for applications installed within in it.

imageimage

 image

the following screen shot is Calculator running from inside the XP VM but in a single window on the Vista desktop – note the red border and the image icon, denoting that its presented via Unity.

image

It even shows up on the start bar with the correct icon; although this doesn’t seem to work until its been run a couple of times; I assume it needs to cache an icon or something.

image

it also seems to respect the window snapshots you get whilst Win-Tab between applications, even for pop-up windows

image 

Technically I can use this to run n x Windows XP/Outlook 2003 VM’s presenting Outlook through to my Vista desktop and comply with all organisations security policies, as each VM and its respective copy of Outlook runs in isolation from each other with the relevant company-specific AV client (or at worst, the same level as if I were using a machine connected to a public network in that they all share a vm network) – I don’t enable shared folders between the VMs.

It’s still a beta feature at the moment, and there seem to be a few bugs particularly when resizing windows sometimes it doesn’t work properly and double clicking to expand to full screen overlays the start-bar on my vista machine.

And it does seem to get confused sometimes and not allow keyboard input, so you have to flick back to non-unity mode and then back to continue, and sometimes a reboot of the guest VM but it is an early build so I would guess this will be resolved.

As an added bonus VM Workstation seems to allow the Vista host OS to go into sleep mode even whilst VMs are running, this is something I’ve not had much luck with in the past – it would generally refuse to sleep when I closed the lid (but thats not a scientific comparison… it may have just been bad luck!)

So, the pay-off – 2 copies of Outlook (2003 and 2007) seemingly running on the same desktop, alt-tab works ok and you have access to all the functionality of both without having to switch between or run multiple OWA sessions and from a security perspective it’s not really any different from having 2 physical PCs in front of you (slight memory overhead, but my laptop has 4Gb RAM, so not a huge issue).

Opening attachments is obviously going to be a bit of an issue, as you’ll technically need an individually licenced instance of Office 2003 in each VM as they can’t (yet) exchange data between them… and that would compromise the security principal.

image

VMWare Server Performance – A Practical Example

 

The following screen dump is from an HP DL380G5 server that runs all the core infrastructure under VMWare Server (the free one) for a friend’s company which I admin sometimes.

It is housed in some co-lo space and runs the average range of Windows servers used by a small but global business, Exchange SQL, Windows 2003 Terminal Services.

As a result of some planned (but not very well communicated!) power maintenance the whole building lost power earlier today, when it was restored I grabbed the following screenshot as the 15 or so Virtual Machines automatically booted.

interesting to note that all the VM’s had been configured to auto-start with the guest OS, meaning there wasn’t any manual intervention required, even though it was a totally dirty shutdown for both the host and guest OS’es (No UPS, as the building and suite is supposed to have redundant power feeds to each rack – in this instance the planned maintenance was on the building wiring so required taking down all power feeds for a 5 yearly inspection..)

There are no startup delay settings  in the free version of VMWare Server so they all start at the same time, interesting to note the following points..

The blue line that makes a rapid drop is the pages/second counter, and the 2nd big drop (green) is the disk queue length. the hilighted (white) line is the overall %CPU time, note the sample frequency was 15 seconds on this perfmon.

image 

After it had settled down, I took the following screenshot, it hardly breaks a sweat during its working day. there are usually 10-15 concurrent users on this system from around the world (access provisioned via an SSL VPN device) and a pretty heavily used Exchange mail system.

image

The box is an HP DL380 G5 with 2 x quad core CPUs (8 cores in total) and 16Gb of RAM, it has 8 x 146Gb 15k HDDs in a single RAID 5 set + hot-spare, it was purchased in early 2007 and cost c.£8,000 (UK Prices)

It runs Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition x64 edition with VMWare Server 1.0.2 (yes, its an old build.. but if it ain’t broke..) and they have purchased multiple w2k3 ent-edition licences to take advantage of the virtualisation use-rights to cover the installed virtual OS’es.

It’s been in-place for a year and hardly ever has to be touched, its rock-solidly available and the company have noticed several marked improvements since they P2V’d their old servers onto this platform, as follows;

  • No hardware failures – moving from lots of low-end servers (Dell) and desktops to a single box (10:1 consolidation)
  • The DL380 has good redundancy built in, but it’s also backed up with a h/w maintenence contract, and they also have a spare cold-standby server to resume service from backups if data is lost.
  • Less noise, the old servers were dotted around their old offices in corners, racks etc – this is the main thing they liked!
  • Simple access anywhere – using a Juniper SA2000 SSL VPN,  its easy to get secure access from anywhere
  • Less reliance on physical offices and cheap DSL-grade data communications, now the servers are hosted on the end of a reliable, data centre class network link with an SLA to back it up. if an individual office looses its ADSL connection, no real issue – people pick up their laptop(s) and work from home/starbucks etc.
  • Good comms are cheaper in data centres than in your branch offices (usually)

Hopefully this goes to show the free version of VMWare’s server products can work almost as well if budget is a big concern, ESX would definitely give some better features and make backup easier, they are considering upgrading and combining with something like Veeam Backup to handle failover/backup.

HP Rapid Deployment Pack – PXE Settings for Deploying Windows OS

 

The followign screens show a working configuration from the RDP 3.80 PXE Configuration Manager

image

Have had lots of problems with this deploying Windows OS’es and VMWare ESX 3.5 onto an HP c7000 Blade chassis, still not resolved all the problems, but this definitely works for deploying Windows!

The documentation reads like you should always use the Linux PE configuration and it handles switching between WinPE/LinuxPE depending on which OS job you drop on a target. in my experience this doesn’t work and you need to manually change the PXE configuration to default to LinuxPE or WinPE depending on the OS you want to target.

image

And

image

 

Still a work in progress as I have a c7000 to which I want to deploy a mix of Windows and ESX/Redhat OS’es….

I did get a previous installation to install ESX 3.5 by hacking the default ESX 3.02 job, but its since been re-installed and I can’t do it now

RDP 6.90 seems to list Windows 2008 and ESX 3.5 in the quickspecs, but I’ll be damned if I can find where to download it, going to have to call HP methinks!

As I’ve posted before installing via iLo is just a non-starter if you really do want a flexible and fast deployment configuration – so it has to be RDP.

More later…