Zoom: Early Deployment Data

This post will serve as a quick update on our first couple of months worth of deployment data for our Zoom video conferencing service. I explained our decision to move to a cloud-based system in general and our choice of Zoom in this post. We announced the availability of the service in early September, but other than holding a pair of official online training sessions for it, we’ve allowed the service to grow organically, depending primarily on word of mouth to get the word out about it so far.

2 Months of Zoom vs 2013 Polycom Usage

The easiest way to demonstrate how popular Zoom has become already is to compare the data we have on Zoom’s usage since we announced it to Polycom usage for the entire calendar year of 2013.

Polycom 2013 Usage

Unique users or hosts of Polycom meetings: 21
Number of Polycom meetings held: 104

Zoom 2 Months Usage

Unique users or hosts of Zoom meetings: 84
Number of Zoom meetings held: 385

So in just two months, we already have four times as many people hosting their video meetings via Zoom, for 3.7 times as many meetings. Why so big a difference? The biggest reason has to be convenience, and not just location convenience since our H.323-enabled conference rooms are still being used to join Zoom meetings, but scheduling and ease of use as well.

A Sampling of Meeting Types / Purposes

Our users, particularly our administration and leadership, host Zoom meetings for many of the same reasons they always have – department meetings, faculty meeting, project meetings. I’d say we’re seeing an uptick in those types of meetings simply because they’re so easy and convenient to hold and don’t require participants to pack up and go to a dedicated H.323-enabled conference room to join.

We’re also seeing increased usage for distance education. One of our departments was an early adopter of Zoom, before our public launch even, and they’re hosting a class multiple times each week with participants all across the state. We have graduate students hosting Zoom meetings for their thesis committees with remote members from other institutions.

Our Tennessee Extension unit hosted its quadrennial conference early this month. While over 800 attendees participated in the four day conference, quite a few members were able to join in from many locations around the state as both the general sessions and several breakout sessions were broadcast webinar-style via Zoom each day.

A Potential Money-Saver for Us

We’re a state-wide organization, with over 2000 employees located across all 95 counties in Tennessee. We have project and leadership teams beginning to use Zoom who simply never had the option of meeting via video before. While I expect our usage numbers to continue to accelerate, my gut tells me that as we leverage Zoom more, we will spend less on travel – be it lodging, mileage, or food, as well as fees for external conference call systems.

I’ll post more data as I have it, especially at the six and twelve month milestones.

This is post 24 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

Posted in Cloud Services, Video Conferencing | Tagged , ,

Visit to UTC for SCCM Overview

One of the major projects on my plate right now is the design and implementation of System Center Configuration Manager. We’ll be piloting it on campus first, with the goal of eventually extending its use to manage computers and devices at all of our locations across Tennessee. Given that we have offices in all 95 counties, 3 regional offices, 10 research centers, and a large presence on the Knoxville campus of the University of Tennessee, this system will be critically important to improving how we manage our IT infrastructure across the state.

I met with some colleagues from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga at TechEd this year, and had a brief discussion over dinner and cider of their SCCM implementation. So I knew I wanted my team to meet with them before we start scoping and planning this project. We rented a van from the UT motor pool and headed to Chattanooga Wednesday morning. In addition to myself, along for the ride were our security analyst, 2 IT professionals from our College of Veterinary Medicine, and a colleague from the College of Education who is planning on standing up his own SCCM system for his department.

Project Plans, Personnel, and Timetables – Oh My!

We met with the two systems folks running UTC’s SCCM system, including the guy who pushed for the project and got the support for it from their CIO. It was impressive to see that they went from conceiving the project in January of 2014 to its initial deployment in their computer labs in March and April, and that included bringing Microsoft in via a Premier engagement to both scope the system and come onsite for a 3 day jumpstart. The UTC folks brought Microsoft onsite twice, in fact – for 3 days to help build the system and do a tiny bit of focused training, and after 6 months had passed, for 3 days to help review the progress the UTC folks had made and verify that they had built the system out according to established best practices.

It was also interesting to find out that while UTC built their SCCM system within the existing statewide Tennessee Active Directory, where each campus has its own child domain, they have decided to stand up their own separate AD forest and migrate the system and computers over to it. We don’t even have our own child domain at this point, but have considered setting one up. Seeing the benefits and flexibility having their own forest will provide to UTC, it’s something we have to keep in mind moving forward.

Another valuable data point we gathered was the number of folks working on the SCCM system at UTC. They have two admins of the system, although one noted that his duties, primarily application packaging at this point, accounted for about 50% of this time. The other admin noted SCCM took significantly more than 50% of his time, but as the system is beginning to mature, and as he is able to delegate permissions within the system to departmental IT professionals, he anticipates that percentage to decrease.  That was both good to hear and a little scary, because I’m the only dedicated infrastructure person on my team, so I’ll be bearing most of the high level duties for the system myself, and delegating administration of unit-specific functionality to others.

So Much Left to Learn

We had a great meeting with our UTC colleagues, wrapped up with lunch at a great Chattanooga restaurant called Universal Joint that I reviewed on Geek Food Critic. I’m still digesting much of what we discussed, and am more excited than ever to setup a proof-of-concept system. I’m also beginning to work through SCCM self-paced training at Microsoft Virtual Academy, as well as Pluralsight. I’m also on the lookout for good blogs and even in-person training, so if you can suggest any, please reach out to me over twitter at @mikestanley.

This is post 21 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

Posted in Projects, Training/Education | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Keeping Your Options Open: Always a Good Thing

I took and passed the Citrix 1Y0-300 exam today. That fulfills the upgrade path requirement to convert my Citrix Certified Enterprise Engineer (CCEE) certification to the new Citrix Certified Professional – Virtualization (CCP-V) certification. My current role doesn’t even involve working directly with Citrix products, so it would be reasonable to ask, “why bother upgrading a certification that doesn’t impact my current job?” I can think of some good reason.

  1. I put a lot of work into obtaining my CCEE. I had to pass 4 separate exams to achieve the CCEE, and I’m proud of the work I did. While my CCEE is valid until sometime in 2016, the single exam upgrade path Citrix provided to the new certification may be expiring on Nov 28 of 2014. I say may be expiring because the wording isn’t clear and I think Citrix may well extend the perceived deadline.
  2. I wanted to prove I could do it. My current boss doesn’t care one bit that I passed this exam and upgraded my Citrix certification, and that’s OK. I care, though, and I did it at least in part because I wanted to prove that even though I stepped away from building and maintaining Citrix systems last year, that my lab time and interest in the products were enough to keep my edge.
  3. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I like what I’m doing now. I like my team. I like my boss. I love working in higher education. I may stay where I am for a long time. But I simply do not know what the future holds. A little over a year ago, I left a job with a VAR working with a great team of guys, primarily because I got spooked as a new father at frequent travel away from my little boy. Funny thing is, since I work for a state-wide organization now, with offices in every county of the state, I do as much, if not more travel than I used to. But I’ve grown as a father just as my boy has grown into a toddler, and while I don’t relish being away from home, it doesn’t break my heart the way it did before.
  4. Nobody is responsible for keeping my skills up to date but me. If I want to keep my skills fresh, it’s up to me. I get to work with a lot of different technologies right now, but because we’re such a small IT shop, I don’t get to go as deep into some of them as I’d like. So work in my home lab and pouring time into Pluralsight courses are  ways I can learn new things and go deeper into them.

So that’s why I took this exam and upgraded my certification. I did it for me, if not for today, then for whatever may happen in the future.

This is post 17 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

Posted in Training/Education | Tagged , ,

Cloud Services with Little or No Support: A Recipe for Frustration

IT in higher education is often always asked to do more with less. That’s doubly true at the departmental or college level, outside of the typically better-funded centralized IT organizations. I’ve worked in both, and while today I sometimes feel like I’m asked to deliver enterprise solutions on a small business budget, in the past it seemed like we had the budget to pay for hardware and software, but not necessarily enough people to properly maintain it.

Something that has become very appealing to the education market are cloud services offered either on a free or no additional cost basis. Cloud Storage is one service that sounds almost too good to be true, especially when I think about how much the giant NetApp filers we bought a few years ago cost, and how a large portion of them is used to deliver SMB file shares to users on campus with a quota of “only” 50GB.

When free may really be free

Google Apps was recently rolled out to our campus. I’m not in a position to speak the service with 100% certainty, but based on discussions we had a few years ago in central IT and on what I’ve read about concerning other colleges and universities, I figure there’s a good chance that UT isn’t paying Google anything for “Google Apps for Education.” Students can make use of nearly the full suite of apps from Google, including Gmail, whereas faculty & staff can use all of them except for Gmail.

Google Drive is the service that many people were excited about having access to. White it was originally described as providing 30GB of space, Google has since announced it will provide unlimited storage to Google Apps for Education users. I’m sure this was in response to Microsoft offering 1TB of storage to OneDrive for Business users.

When free really isn’t

Office 365 was recently rolled out on campus as well. Students have the option of using Office 365 for email, and over the next year, faculty and staff will do so as well. We’re also all using Lync Online now, and have access to SharePoint Online, Office Web Apps, and OneDrive for Business.

Office 365 is anything but free, although I’m sure Microsoft would like for us to think of most of the services as being provided at “no additional cost.” Still, I know what we were paying for our Campus Agreement a few years back, and I know the annual cost hasn’t gone down, so while OneDrive for Business may not be broken out as a separate line item, it certainly costs the university something.

OneDrive for Business originally offered education users either 25GB or 50GB, but was upgraded to 1TB a few months ago. Evidently Microsoft was not to be outdone by Google, because it too now offers unlimited storage.  Whether or not a user can actually use all that space is another matter, of course.

So what’s wrong with free or kinda free?

I have no problem with free or pseudo-free services. I use quite a few of them every day, including Dropbox, Twitter, and more. But in the case of Google Apps for Education or Office 365, the phrase, “you get what you pay for” can be painfully true. As long as Google Drive or OneDrive for Business work well, people are happy. But the simple truth is, free services aren’t as well supported as paid services. If a user on campus loses a file on the campus T-Storage SMB file share service, both the HelpDesk and the central Systems group can and will do whatever they can to recover the file. Lose a file on Google Drive, as a user from our College of Veterinary Medicine recently did, and there may be nothing the HelpDesk can do for you. Both Google Apps and Office 365 have been described as services that are supported at a “best effort” level. In practice, that typically means helping users install or uninstall the clients, start and restart services, and perform other basic troubleshooting steps. But at the end of the day, central IT doesn’t run Google Drive or OneDrive for Business, so there is only so much they can do about it if something goes wrong.

What do our users think about this?

I just don’t know. I know they see these cloud services offered in official emails by IT, and they’re told to contact the HelpDesk if they have any questions or need help setting them up. I also know that if they have a serious problem with them, and they reach the limit of “best effort” support, they get really frustrated, and I don’t blame them. Those of us in IT may understand that these “free” cloud services come with lots of caveats, but I don’t expect an average user to do so.

Where do we go from here?

In a perfect world, we would only use services we pay for, as a separate item, not something tossed in at “no additional cost” like OneDrive for Business is on our Campus Agreement. We’d pay for those services, and get an enforceable SLA, and get vendor-based support that could be held accountable when something doesn’t work as it should. I don’t get the sense that we have that for either of the cloud storage products we’re using. I believe we’d get it with Citrix ShareFile, Dropbox for Business, or Box.net, and possibly others. Unfortunately, discussions of those products usually end as soon as the cost is estimated. But you get what you pay for…

This is post 16 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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iPad Air 2: Conference Experiment Results

I set out this week to use my new iPad Air 2 as my only computer at a professional development conference. So for four days, with the exception of a couple of minutes tweaking a table in my PowerPoint presentation, and then using the PC to run the presentation and demo, I used my iPad full-time. At this point, I’m comfortable calling the experiment a partial success.

I spent most of my time on the iPad performing a handful of tasks, including:

Email & Calendar

The iPad has always been a great tool for email. Since my iPad is a personal device, I recently decided to keep my work and personal email separate. So I use Apple’s Mail app for my personal email accounts – Gmail, Google Apps, Outlook.com, and Office 365. It does a great job dealing with them, although I do wish I could mark email as spam within Apple’s app. I’ve confirmed I can do that with both the Gmail app and Google’s new Inbox app, but I’m not interested in splitting up my email across three different apps.

For work email, I’ve switched to Acompli. Segregating work email into a separate app allows me to try to do a better job of maintaining work/life balance. Acompli is an interesting app, combining both email and calendar in one app, almost like Outlook.  I use the calendar function sparingly, mainly because I prefer Fantastical on my iPhone and Calendars 5 on my iPad.

I had no issues keeping up with email on my iPad. I actually prefer reading and answering emails on my iPad – partly because it’s easy to do quickly, and partly because it encourages me to be brief in my responses.

iMessages & Text Messaging

Prior to iOS 8, the iPad was an outstanding tool for communicating with my iOS-using friends, family, and coworkers, but I had to resort to using my iPhone to send and receive text messages from folks using Android or Windows Phone. iOS 8 has changed that, as the SMS Relay functionality allows me to handle all of my messaging on the iPad. I still use my iPhone for messaging on the go or when I don’t have my iPad out, but it is really convenient and provides a superior experience.

Twitter & Facebook

I have been pairing my Facebook presence and time down for the last few weeks. I uninstalled the client from my iPhone and don’t choose to visit the website when I’m at work. So I typically only access Facebook now from my iPad, and I do so as briefly as possible, primarily to check to see if there are any comments on the items I post into Facebook via Instagram. I don’t particularly care for Facebook anymore, but it is the only way I have to keep up with some friends and family who use it, and doing it on my iPad is the best, most contained way I have of doing it.

For Twitter, I use Tweetbot of course. I’ve used all of the major Twitter clients on iOS and Tweetbot is undeniably the best, or at least my favorite. I use it on my Macs as well. I was able to monitor my feed and keep up with multiple hashtags I was following this week, both for the #vDM30in30 Blog Challenge and for my conference. Much like with iMessages, Twitter on the iPad is a superior experience.

Creating Office Documents

I worked on both a PowerPoint presentation and Word document this week. Both worked reasonably well, although my very strong preference is to use an external keyboard rather than the on-screen keyboard. I did have issues working with a table in PowerPoint, but I need to spend more time fiddling with it to know if that was a PowerPoint problem, an iOS problem, or simply a case where finger touch isn’t as accurate as it needs to be compared to the fine control possible with a mouse.

I used Microsoft Office exclusively this week, but I have used Keynote, Pages, and Numbers quite a bit on my Mac before, and am willing to give them a shot on my iPad since they’re included with all new iOS devices now. I may need to stick to Office to ensure compatibility when sharing documents with coworkers, but most of my Office documents end up being simple enough that I will use the suite over time that works best for me.

RSS Feeds, Web Browsing, Instapaper

While I have recently switched to Unread on my iPhone, I’m still using Reeder on my iPad since it seems like the iPad version of Unread has not been updated for iOS 8. For simply reading my RSS feeds, I prefer doing so on my iPad over either my iPhone and Mac.

I say simply reading because for feeds that either aren’t full text or that link to other sites on the web, I find Mobile Safari to be adequate for some sites, and frustrating for others. I’m not a web person, and I don’t know all the ins and outs of mobile versus desktop sites, but what I do know is that it drives me insane to hit a website on my iPad and have it force me into the mobile view. It kills me to think we moved past the whole Flash video issue years ago, but I still can’t reliably count on a website to just serve up the desktop site on my iPad, or if it does, for Mobile Safari to reliably render it.

Instapaper is how I try to deal with this issue. If I see an article or blog post linked on Twitter or via RSS, I pop it open some of the time in Safari, but most of the time I send it to Instapaper, and read it there. In addition to avoiding potential rendering issues, that also allows me to skip through my Twitter feed more quickly, filing away potentially important things for later reading.

Blogging

While I have posted to each of my blogs this week during the conference, the experience has been suboptimal, to say the least.  I used the official WordPress app to compose all of the posts, but I found the interface, especially for tagging posts, a pain to deal with. So in most cases I uploaded the post as a draft, then loaded it in the web editor, tweaked it a bit, then published.

Another failing of the WordPress app involved how it handled images. While the web editor gives me options for sizing images, as well as choosing how to align them on the page, the WordPress app offered no such options. In addition to that, the WordPress app seems to only be capable of working with images from my iPad photo library, not images that I’ve already uploaded to my media library at wordpress.com.

I found blogging from the iPad to be frustrating enough that I almost threw in the towel for that task and just used my PC. That would have been painful in its own way, since I use iPhoto to manage all of my photos and blog images on either my MacBook Pro or iMac at home. So if I’d tried to use my PC for the task at the conference I would have had to come up with a different workflow for taking the full quality images I’d snapped with my iPhone and save them in lower quality for the blogs. At the end of the day, I just didn’t care enough to deal with the headache, so I uploaded full quality images with the WordPress app and left them sitting on the page at whatever size it decided I was allowed to use.

Even if I decide to keep using the iPad more regularly for “real computer” tasks, I won’t be using it for blogging unless I can find a blog editor for iOS that gives me all the functionality I need, as well as a photo management app for the iPad that lets me resize and reduce quality on images. If you have a recommendation for a good blog editor on iOS, please send it to me over Twitter. In the meantime, I’m evaluating Squarespace as a possible new blogging platform, as I’ve heard its mobile blog app is excellent.

Conclusion: Mostly a Success, but Only Mostly

I got most of what I needed and wanted to get done this week using only an iPad. A few months ago, I don’t think I would have been willing to try. But it was nice carrying only my iPad, or at times the iPad and the Apple Wireless Keyboard around, instead of my laptop. I think with the right keyboard case, I could probably do just about everything I’d need to do on the go with my iPad, with one giant exception right now – writing blog posts the way I want to write them. I’m looking at keyboard case options, and I’m not ready to pull the trigger yet. Logitech makes the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, which multiple people have recommended to me. Someone also recommended the Logitech Tablet Keyboard. I’m waiting for now until the Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro Keyboard Case for iPad Air 2 comes out before making a final decision. The other QODE’s are highly rated and the Ultimate Pro seems like just what I’m looking for – a case for the iPad when I want to be just a tablet, and a keyboard that the case attaches to when I want to use it as a semi-laptop.

I’m not ready to sell my MacBook Pro and go all iPad all the time. I’m writing this blog post on my MacBook Pro as a matter of fact. But I will be using my iPad more than I ever have in the past, and for tasks I hadn’t considered it for until this week.

This is post 13 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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iPad Air 2: 24 Hours of Full-Time Use

I’ve spent the last 24 hours living almost exclusively on my new iPad Air 2. I’ll explain what I mean by almost in a bit, but for now, I can say I am satisfied that I can make it through the entire conference without using a “real” computer again, with the exception of the presentation I will be giving 55 minutes from the time that I’m typing this.

I worked on my presentation today using PowerPoint. I could have used Keynote, of course, but I’ll be delivering my presentation using a PC, so I didn’t want any potential headaches with file format translation.

IMG_0009.PNG

For an hour or so, I tapped away on the on-screen keyboard, but I grew tired of that, especially since I wanted to do a long of inter-line cursor movement, so I pulled out my Apple Wireless Keyboard and increased my productivity quite a bit.

IMG_0293.JPG

Paired with a good keyboard, I’m much happier using the iPad for non-tablet tasks involving typing or selecting lots of text.

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, however. I’m not sure if this is a PowerPoint on iOS issue specifically, or an iOS problem in general, but I discovered one thing that I simply was unable to do on the iPad within PowerPoint. I could not select the column border within a table in order to modify the column width. So that’s one little thing I had to tweak on the PC just now as I prepped my file for final delivery.

Something else I’m seeing after using the iPad + Apple keyboard combo is that lugging around a separate keyboard, particularly one that is exposed in my bag or even in my hand, just feels weird. So I believe I need to investigate some sort of keyboard case, particularly one that might allow me to either quickly remove the iPad for tablet-only use, or one that could accommodate the iPad in a separate tablet case.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll post more about my iPad-only conference experience in a couple of days.

This is post 11 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

Posted in Hardware | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

iPad Air 2: 3 Days In

I’ve had my new iPad Air 2 for 3 days now, and I continue to be impressed with this device. After returning the overpriced Apple leather Smart Case to the Apple Store yesterday, I used it for about 8 hours total without a case at all, and was amazed at how thin and light Apple has managed to make the iPad.

The Case Question – Solved for Now

As I mentioned in my first impressions post, I was not satisfied with the Apple leather Smart Case. It was the only case at my local Apple Store that was definitely made for the Air 2, so I bought it, but it took me less than 24 hour to decide it wasn’t worth the (insane, imo) price of $79. I see these cases as a clear money-grab by Apple, but I wouldn’t begrudge them making a ton of profit per case if they were both useful and good-looking. Since this one wasn’t useful, I returned it. The Apple Store employee asked why I was returning it and I told him the trifold design wasn’t as good as the older 4 panel one. He nodded as if he’d heard this before and said, “Yeah, it doesn’t fold over itself, so it isn’t as stable.”

air2-cheap_caseStill, I needed a case of some kind before leaving town for a conference, so I jumped on Amazon’s website and did a quick search. I found this case by Moko for the low price of $10.95 with free Amazon Prime shipping. It has the same trifold design as Apple’s case, but I decided it would be worth it, even if I just used it for a short period of time while researching other options. I ordered it on Friday afternoon and it arrived today on Sunday. I would say it is no worse than the Apple case, and considering it is $68 cheaper, that’s good enough for me for the time being.

air2-cheap-foldHere’s another shot of the case with the front flap folded over to be used as a stand. It may not be as good as my iPad 3/4 case, but at least as good, and possibly better than the new Air 2 Smart Case from Apple. I say better because the front flap is stiffer than the Apple case, and it didn’t require meticulous folding and refolding the first few times like the Apple case did. Still, I don’t expect much for $11, and as long as this case keeps my iPad from getting scratched in my backpack, I’ll be satisfied with it.

air2-cheap-sideOne final shot here shows a major difference, I think for the better, between the Apple Smart Case and this much less expensive Moko case. The Moko case has a hard plastic back, and it seems to me that it should do a better job of protecting the iPad in the even that I do drop it, especially at the corners. I may be wrong, and I hope to never have a reason to find out.

What’s a Tablet For?

I’ve written about the tablet concept in general, and specifically about how the Windows tablet concept doesn’t work for me before. I haven’t had any experiences to moderate my opinion of Windows tablets, but as I continue to see others, including my wife, make use of iPads to do nearly everything they would do with a “real computer” I have to admit that I may need to reconsider my opinion, especially as it relates to the iPad.

In the last couple of days, I have composed blog posts, typed long emails, edited photos, remotely connected to my office PC, and other tasks I would usually not attempt on a tablet. Partly I’m trying to get used to the thought of using a tablet full-time at an upcoming conference, and partly I’m enjoying the increased speed and functionality of this new Air 2 over my old iPad 4.

What’s Next?

When I leave for this conference tomorrow, I’ll be taking my Dell laptop to use for my presentation – not because I couldn’t deliver Powerpoint or Keynote slides with my iPad, but because I’ll be demoing Windows software during the presentation since 99% of the people attending my presentation will be using a PC at work to get their jobs done. But other than that presentation, I intend to use my iPad for all my note taking, email checking, web browsing, and Twitter during the day. In the evenings, I’ll keep using the iPad for those things and to FaceTime my wife and son back home. I’ll compose the blog posts for the 30 Day Blog Challenge on my iPad as well, although they may be somewhat media lite since the WordPress app seems to be willing to let me add local images to a blog post, but for some crazy reason won’t let me access all of the images I have already uploaded to my WordPress library. After 4 days on the road I should have a good idea if I can continue to make regular heavy use of a tablet like I see so many others doing.

This is post 9 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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