Where are our successors?

Computer science & Electronic engineers shortage

Attending Design Means Business conference today, Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and now Life President of Eidos games brought up the subject of the skills shortage in the UK games industry. An industry worth staggering amounts of money it has to be said.

Ian hinted at the lack of support and understanding for the industry from the civil service, Government. Ian promoted that computer science should be taught in schools because ICT as it is currently taught is inadequate. Kids need to be introduced to more than how to operate Microsoft Office applications. If we are to supply the industry with the type of skills it demands.

Computer Science in schools

I do think kids need to understand more about how computers work, bits and all. Computers are now so pervasive in our lives that an understanding of how they work should put people in a good position for the many years ahead where they will be interacting with them in all their guises.

I had to chip in when it came to question time as I am seeing the same problem in the electronics industry. This was confirmed by those who came up to me later agreeing with my observations. Recruiting for a broad skilled electronic design engineer is turning out to be very difficult for me at the moment. During interviews what I think I am uncovering is that students of electronic engineering are less likely to have been experimenting with basic circuits in their bedrooms than in our generation. This results in them not knowing the basic building blocks required to design circuits. Could this be because Kids now have so many distractions competing for their time, such as smart phones, SMS text message conversations, very good video game consoles and handhelds, internet chat, social internet, Blue Ray DVD’s, many TV channels all day and night? In our youth, we had to entertain ourselves much more, for some kids this led to dismantling things and building things, often spending hours figuring out how things work. Is that is lost to this generation?

Perhaps the educational establishments are failing to teach what is actually required for industry? Some argue that the high calibre students are not longer attracted to engineering as the status and value of engineering has been slipping in society for many, many years.

How did our generation learn?

In the case of computers the 1980’s games only held so many hours of attention then you had to find other things to do like entering pages of computer code from magazines, working out what it was doing, tweaking it. Today software developer tooling is such that the developer is abstracted above the science of the machine and is more inclined to be dragging and dropping even if they do venture that far. An interest in computer science may never be germinated as computer science is never exposed.

In the electronics world, these days the hobbyist who picks up a copy of Make magazine or goes to instructables.com is faced with many electronics projects that are fun, however they are almost always backed with a microprocessor hobby board that makes it plug, program and play. This shortcuts the analogue circuit equivalent of these operations leaving little hope of developing analogue electronic engineers or RF engineers.

Inspirational software evangelists

What could be done to correct the situation we are in? The British excel at design and should be generating economic benefit from it.You may say the Government should invest in computer science and electronics in schools, instead perhaps it should be the private sector, computer games industry and electronics industries taking matters into their own hands. Ian said that they are sponsoring computer clubs at schools. This is a start, but I really have to ask about role models and inspiration. What was it that inspired a subject option choice or career aspiration when you were young? My guess is that this is usually though an individual who inspired you, a role model such as an unusually enthusiastic teacher or media role model. I cannot stress enough about the importance and impact that enthusiastic technology evangelists can have on children’s perceptions and acceptance of learning. The industry needs to find individuals who are good leaders, can inspire young people. Microsoft do this very effectively with their technology evangelists a handful of individuals who are good a public speaking and love what they do. Their role is to go around the internet and physical country enthusiastically talking to people about the Microsoft technology stack. Perhaps as electronic and software engineers, we should be putting our foot in the door of the computer clubs, kids social clubs using such inspirational individuals to inspire a next generation of wealth builders.

I remember when the Royal Institution Christmas lectures used to be shown with good TV schedule slots, and as there was not much choice kids ended up watching them, getting inspired by science & technology. They are now on after the kids have gone to sleep late evening and on an obscure TV channel. Does this tell us of the regard education of children has? Do you also remember how open university programs used to be on to fill gaps in TV scheduling? You would end up watching them, and often realise how interesting it was?

Education is competing with entertainment now more than ever before. Other developing market countries are pouring effort and cash into education where the kids are given more motivation to improve and less entertainment distractions. The gap is closing and we need to act to prevent electronic design and game design migrating to other countries.

My company wants innovation…

I caught myself asking for my newly acquired design team to be innovative something I now realise was unreasonable after my company also asked for the same thing of us.

Today at the Design Means Business conference the term innovation and innovative kept arising. Some clarity of the matter was distilled as the day progressed.

Mike Addison from Procter & Gamble provided me with some quotes that were reflections and affirmations of other sessions in the day;

  • "innovation is intrinsically risky if you are pushing as hard as you need to push" (and the business has to understand that)
  • "management want innovation as a process ... It requires specialness not common in everyone" (it is not a process it is a culture not everyone can be innovative)
  • "a culture of innovation cannot be switched on and off" (on demand)

Innovation is a culture that must be adopted by an organisation. If innovation is being asked for by the CEO then they must in turn support an innovative culture, from the top down, including the risks that come with it.

Talking to other delegates it seems that this is a common demand upon design functions in business yet, the necessary organisation commitment to the culture piece is rarely recognised or put into place.

http://esrccoi.group.shef.ac.uk/worddocs/innovculture.doc

 

The problem of generating new growth business is not solved by multiplying the number tries. It is solved when insights about how to do something better coincide with design thinking and entrepreneurial management in a host organisation that has the right combination of resources and sponsorship to take the opportunity forward.

The Growth Gamble: When Leaders Should Bet Big on New Businesses, and How
They Can Avoid Expensive Failures by Gary Hamel, Andrew Campbell and Robert Park

@@SERVERNAME is NULL & SQL Server Replication

Issuing the following query should return the server name of the instance you are working with. In the scenario that is about to be described, the server had some work done on it which left the query below returning NULL.

This causes problems when attempting to run tools such as the replication monitors and wizards as they appear to use this query internally and thus complain that a connection cannot be made to a (NULL) server during the login process. Also various other errors start occurring using Server Management Studio.

SELECT @@SERVERNAME
 
As the sever had been used for replication in the past, there was a node under linked servers for itself. The server was acting as its own distributor in replication, thus had a “replication” database under System Databases node in Management Studio.
There was also a Linked Server named repl_distributor that I take to be a pointer to the distributor, in this case the same server.
 
The problem was the the Repliation >> Local Publications  node contained a publication that was not working.
 
Trying to run any commands resulted in the server complaining about the null server name, by the way the following command returned the correct server name;
SELECT SERVERPROPERTY('MachineName'), SERVERPROPERTY ('InstanceName')

It seems this is held more up to date than the other property and syncs with the sever name better.
 

Change @@SERVERNAME

All the server names “registered” can be viewed with

sp_helpserver

In the returned table it was possible to see the Linked server, but there was no server with the ID column of 0. The row with the ID column of 0 is the server name returned when the @@SERVERNAME property is used. To set this add a server with the following;

sp_addserver '<YourServerName>','local'

The local parameter tells it that you are talking about this special server name. However attempting this in this case resulted in the server complaining that the server already existed, due to the LINKED server.

It should be possible to drop the existing linked server by issuing the following command;

SP_DROPSERVER '<YourServerName>','droplogins'

This didn’t work as it complained that the server was acting as a publisher. Argh!

Temporary Change to @@SERVERNAME

In order to “getinto” the SQL tools I creating a ficticous servername, adding that servername to the local hosts file of the server.

 
sp_addserver '<YourServerName>TEMP','local'

In the hosts file C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\etc\hosts

127.0.0.1       localhost
127.0.0.1    <YourServerName>TEMP

YOU MUST restart the SQL server service for the @@SERVERNAME variable to refresh, easy to forget!

So now @@SERVERNAME returned a false servername, however at least working on the server I could use Management Studio to connect to the server under this fake name and start accessing normal tools for replication.

Removing replication

 

At this point the aim was to totally remove replication and then add it all back in once it was all gone. To do this there is a guidance document How to manually remove a replication in SQL Server 2000 or in SQL Server 2005this seemed to work for 2008 too.

For each replicated database, this was used to rip out all replication from the databases.

exec master.dbo.sp_removedbreplication '<replicated_databse_name'
sp_dropdistributor @no_checks=1, @ignore_distributor=1
 
The rest of the commands in this section are a medley of commands that can be used to get to the point where the replication is gone.
 
To drop the replication distribution database use this;
alter database distribution set offline
drop database distribution
 
master.dbo.sp_serveroption @server=N'<YourServerName>', @optname=N'dist', @optvalue =N'false'



Helpful help functions the last two seemed to be the final step needed in this case to allow the dropping of the various objects (linked server and replication database).

sp_msrepl_check_server
sp_helpdistpublisher
sp_get_distributor
sp_helpdistributor
sp_helppublication
select * from msdb..msdistpublishers
delete from msdb..msdistpublishers
 
“There are still remote logins or linked logins for the server” - one biggest breakthrough with all this was the clue to try right clicking on the object you are trying to destroy, scripting it and then using that to get the server names for the above manually removing replication method and the other commands listed. It also gives you the scaffold to change the option values to false for the linked servers. See the following fragment that I hacked to get our options for replication and publication set to false after using the scripting technique.
 

/****** Object: LinkedServer [<YourLinkedServerName>] Script Date: 02/18/2011 02:43:09 ******/
EXEC master.dbo.sp_addlinkedserver @server = N'<YourLinkedServerName>', @srvproduct=N'SQL Server'
/* For security reasons the linked server remote logins password is changed with ######## */
EXEC master.dbo.sp_droplinkedsrvlogin @rmtsrvname=N'<YourLinkedServerName>',@locallogin=NULL

@useself=N'False',@locallogin=NULL,@rmtuser=N'webreplication',@rmtpassword='########'
EXEC master.dbo.sp_droplinkedsrvlogin @rmtsrvname=N'<YourLinkedServerName>',@locallogin=NULL

@useself=N'False',,@locallogin=NULL,@rmtuser=N'webreplication',@rmtpassword='########'
EXEC master.dbo.sp_serveroption @server=N'<YourLinkedServerName>', @optname=N'dist',

@optvalue=N'false'
GO
EXEC master.dbo.sp_serveroption @server=N'<YourLinkedServerName>', @optname=N'data access',

@optvalue=N'true'
GO
EXEC master.dbo.sp_serveroption @server=N'<YourLinkedServerName>', @optname=N'sub', @optvalue=

N'false'
GO
EXEC master.dbo.sp_serveroption @server=N'<YourLinkedServerName>', @optname=N'pub', @optvalue=

N'false'


Changing @@SERVERNAME to what it should be

Now it was possible to change the servername back to what is should have been in the first place, and remember to delete the entry in the hosts file.

SP_DROPSERVER '<YourServerName>TEMP','droplogins'
sp_addserver '<YourServerName','local'
 
YOU MUST restart the SQL server service for the @@SERVERNAME variable to refresh, easy to forget!

sp_helpserver

Looking and help server should now return the server names with the actual servername having an ID of 0.

SQL Jobs

 
Don’t forget to delete all the sql replication jobs and agent jobs.
 
 
Thus after a few hours the server now has no replication and it is possible to start again.

GoogleMini Search Appliance Fails to Boot

Security screwA sinking feeling washes over as the network monitor alerts you to a lost server, a bit like loosing contact with one of the fleet at sea. Today it is the GoogleMini, purchased to quickly give us good, familiar search results to our externally facing websites a couple of years ago.

Support Policy

The GoogleMini comes with a maximum of two years support. After that time, if support renewal is required then you must accept a new GoogleMini to go with it. A free box with your support contract is better way of thinking of the way Google run the support and less painful than thinking about how every two years another 1U sever is going to be scrapped. The typical response to cries for help from Google on older boxes is;

Hello **********,

Thank you for writing to Google.

The technical support and hardware warranty for the Google Mini can be extended to up to a maximum of two years. Since your device is past the two year mark, you would need to purchase a new Google Mini if you wanted to be under support again.

However, you can still use the Google Mini to provide the most relevant search results in the industry to your users. The Google search technology comes under a perpetual license, so you are free to keep using it for the life of the hardware.

This support arrangement makes the total cost of ownership high for this solution, but the solution in a box is attractive and hard to resist as it leaves the development and IT infrastructure teams free to concentrate on innovation.

Broken GoogleMini

So what of the alert, you ask? It turns out that our faithful server that has ran without restart for two years has stopped working. On reboot it makes a lot of noise from the fans but shows a blank, black screen on the monitor and no beeps or any BIOS screen.

Although the server is out of warranty the licence terms probably prevent us from continuing to use once it has been opened up. Hence for us the only option is to buy a new GoogleMini or find another solution to serving search results.

Curiosity and opening up the GoogleMini

ATTENTION: Do not open your GoogleMini if you intend to keep using it and/or it is covered still by your support contract.

Inside GoogleMiniCuriosity reigned and off came the rack mount cheeks, out came the tamper proof screws. The all covering blue Google sticker was peeled off the top of the unit to allow the top to slide off.

A quick note on the two screws in the back. The tamper proof screws can be opened by sawing a slot into them for a normal flat head screwdriver to use (gentle use of hacksaw), or alternatively some claim that a small flat head screwdriver wedged into the screw will allow it to be undone.

Broken memory bank on motherboard

Inside you find a familiar server layout. thanks to a post on the internet, the memory was removed and now the server started doing POST beeping, ah-ha, not so dead! Putting memory back into memory bank 1 alone allowed the server to start booting. Putting any memory into the memory bank 2 caused it to not boot again. Looks like a broken mother board. New memory was loaded into the first bank only. After doing a lot of file system checking and some half an hour later, it is running.

Apparently the hardware inside does vary a little, this one was a P8SCT motherboard, marketed by SuperMicro. I guess in order to regain faith in the server, ordering a new motherboard would allow breathe some life into it.

Repurpose the hardware

So challenge of fixing the server hardware problem is resolved but it must now be repurposed for a new life as a Linux server for other uses as it has been opened. There are a few postings people who have very successfully done this with the GoogleMini, seems like the right thing to do from an environmental point of view. The kit is a dual Pentium 3 so should have plenty to give to other deployments, and importantly it looks cool in blue.

To do anything with it, you must get into the BIOS, that is normally protected with a Google owned password, the following snippets help get around that one;

[4]

Step 3 — Resetting the BIOS
Different Google Minis come with different internals. This one happened to have a single processor Super Micro ComputerSUPERO P8SCT motherboard. Other Minis have come with dual processor Pentium 3 boards. In our case, to clear the CMOS and eliminate the BIOS password requirement, I had to bridge two contact pads with a screwdriver. Close everything up, power on the machine, hit the DEL key and straight into the BIOS we go.

[5]

clear the BIOS by jumping the JBT1 pins according to the motherboard manual page 2-19, chapter 2-7 (Jumper Settings). Remove Power and AC coard, short-circuit a few seconds with a small screwdriver, job done.

Cloud based search

So where from here? There may be cloud based search solutions now offered, however the cost of bandwidth in and out of the data centre would be unbearable to support external indexing, for the very large sites this box was indexing. The Mini, sat next to the webserver in the same rack at the Co-Lo seems to make sense.

References:

[1] How do I salvage an old Google search appliance after an apparently failed BIOS update

[2] How to Turn a Google Mini into a Home Server

[3] AnandTech Search goes Google -This post provides some great photographs and information on how to get into your GoogleMini.

[4] Google Mini – Can’t Boot Wont Boot 

[5] HACKING THE GOOGLE MINI

[6] Support Policy

The Google Mini is offered as a perpetual license, including one year of support and hardware replacement coverage, for a total price of $1995 for search across 50,000 documents. Additional versions deliver search across 100,000 documents for $2,995, 200,000 documents for $5,995, and 300,000 documents for $8,995. A second year of support and hardware replacement coverage is available for $995.

Google Mini Front