Monthly Archives: March 2020

Synology DS218j

Or, “why I’m not giving Dropbox money, and you might not want to either”.

Particularly since going paperless, I’ve been pondering where to store my digital files. The days of keeping everything on a PC under the desk in the corner are long over – I have multiple different devices including my smartphone, and I want at least some subset of my working files on all of them. Then there’s backup, sharing selectively with others, encryption, …

I’ve used Dropbox for quite a few years now – it has widespread adoption and various voluntary groups I’m part of use it as a handy way to share files. One might not be thrilled by placing data in the hands of a US mega-corporation, but at least it gives some hope of central management, rather than e-mailing stuff around which is doomed to remain on people’s machines long after they have no further need for it.

However, understandably, Dropbox want people to move from their free tier to paying them money. And if you’re on the free tier, every folder which other people share with you counts towards your quota – not just the quota of the person sharing it.

Before giving in and paying them their pound of flesh, though, I did some maths on the back of an envelope:

Even factoring in the cost of buying the hardware, and the electricity to run it, hosting some Network Attached Storage (NAS) at home looks like an option worth exploring – as long as the kit lasts more than five years, it should be cheaper than Dropbox. And there’s something to be said for having private and personal data hosted at home on hardware under my control.

Look out for part 2 of this series, in which I’ll explain why I went for the Synology and my initial findings from setting it up.

Virtual Coffee Breaks

Note to my biographer and any future historians researching my life: this post was written on the night Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a UK-wide lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19. At the time, I was holed up in my flat in Oxfordshire and working from home.

I’ve been running these for a week now. They work, and they’re very helpful to those like me who live alone.

Times and joining details: dnorth.net/vcb

How much bandwidth do I need?

With everyone in the UK who possibly can working from home, now seems like a good time to share what wisdom I can on bandwidth. You might well be looking at your home internet and wondering if it’s up to snuff, after the first couple of days working from home – did your video/audio conferences break up? Did screen sharing work?

As it happens, I use an ISP who provide me some handy graphs, so here’s the past 24 hours on my VDSL / Fibre To the Cabinet link at home:

Click for bigger version

What can we deduce from this (apart from “David watches too much TV”)? The first thing to note is that the graph is on a non-linear scale – 1mbps (megabit per second) is the same distance from zero as 10mbps is from 1, and as 100mbps is from 10.

The black line near the top denotes the maximum theoretical speed of my line, which is close to 80mbps – about the best you can do on this type of service. But do I need it? Or could I be managing quite well with the 11mbps ADSL I used to have?

The green line denotes data I’m downloading, and the red denotes data I’m uploading (i.e. sending somewhere else as opposed to fetching).

Well, here are some notes – the plural of anecdote is not data, but these might be of use to you:

  • Non-work stuff (Netflix and Amazon) peaks at more (17mbps) than work stuff, which never exceeded 10mbps
  • As you might expect, video and audio conferencing requires meaningful upload bandwidth as well as download – the MS Teams calls I was on from 0930 to 1045 and 1530 to 1630 use an equal(ish) amount in both directions. This kinda makes sense as I was sending video and audio outbound as well as receiving it.
  • Audio-only conferences, even with screen sharing, are less bandwidth-hungry – see for example 1330 to 1450. Presumably there would have been more outbound bandwidth if I’d been the one sharing my screen, rather than viewing someone else’s.
  • As well as having a lower average and peak throughput in each direction, the work stuff clocked up a total of less than 2GB sent and 4GB received. Contrast that with 14GB downloaded on Tuesday (when I was at work all day) by Netflix alone.

Bottom line, if your broadband can cope with streaming video without interruptions and stuttering, it can probably cope very well with a normal working day. The only time my FTTC service is actually coming into its own is streaming 4k video – everything else, especially the business applications, is extremely well optimized to use as little bandwidth as possible .

However, it’s worth noting that my ADSL had just under 1mbps of upstream capacity (the A stands for asymmetric) – so some of those audio/video conferences would have really struggled there. Having 20mbps upstream on FTTC makes a big difference for that sort of application.

I must admit the results were something of a surprise to me – the 18-way MS Teams call peaking at 5mbps in particular – but if you think that every 5mbps at the user end adds up to that much needed at Microsoft’s end, you can see why they’re keen to keep it efficient.

Of course, it helps to have an ISP which works hard to avoid any congestion at their end, giving your traffic the clearest possible path to the wider internet. Thanks to AAISP – not the cheapest, but the best – I can be confident that the handful of audio/video issues today were “the other end” and not me – the graph shows a complete lack of packet loss and a nice low latency throughout.

Best of luck working from home…

Feature parity, the easy way

This one goes back a few years, but still has something to teach us all…

Back when I was church treasurer, the desktop software we used was fine, but clunky. I grafted multi-user capabilities onto the single-user package by checking the software into SVN and launching it from a script which grabbed a lock before updating and launching. Then at the end, it would commit with a progress bar.

This all seemed a bit hateful (and yet is still in use and working well, nine years later), so I looked around for something modern. The ideal solution would be web-based, so it could be used by multiple people from different systems, and not tied to a single OS (i.e. Windows).

Paxton Charities Accounting is “the other one” in this nice market, and we tried moving to it. Their website notes that both their desktop software and their “online” version have exactly the same features, with seamless migration between them – no small achievement, and one I was professionally curious about…

It only became apparent to me once we’d signed up for it how they achieve this – and the stench of genius almost made my eyes water.

Their “online version” is the desktop software, but you launch it over remote desktop from a Windows server at their end!

I’m still torn over whether this is very clever or very nasty – it certainly killed my hopes of being able to use this stuff on Linux* or mobile clients, though in the end it was the rather clunky 1990s feel to the software, a significant step backwards from what we already had, that made us decide not to go with Paxton. The robust quarterly costs were noticeable too (presumably quite a lot of it going to Microsoft for the terminal server per-client licensing).

*Yes, there are remote desktop clients for Linux, but I never found one which coped with the SSL used by this particular application.