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The cloud has a fairly core problem: it’s the cloud. You have no idea of the underlying hardware, or how far server A physically sits from server B. You have high-level monitoring but nothing below a very abstract set of statistics, so although you could use something like PerfMon/TypePerf at the Windows level (or the Linux equivalent if you’re an Open Source kind of person) you have no idea what’s going on on the network.Particularly for an application specialist this is a big deal: in any networked application each contact between endpoints has several phases, from the initial DNS lookup right at the end of the delivery of the results to the user. In the cloud you just can’t see this – so research on how your apps perform in this regard needs you to have some kind of data centre presence with some real, physical equipment in it.And the beauty is that you can often equip your R&D “lab” without costing the earth. After all, you didn’t throw out those end-of-life switches or routers, did you? In most cases you replace kit not because it’s completely unusable but because the vendor no longer supports it and hence it’s no use in a business-critical infrastructure. So if you gave me a few Cisco 2600s routers, 3750G switches, ASA5510s, four-year-old Dell servers and the like I’d be perfectly happy. Although you’ll need to buy some stuff, it won’t be an expensive ground-up purchase.

And the point is I’d be able to let my gang run riot with them and practise stuff. Flash an ancient copy of the ASA firmware onto a 5510 and let them figure out how to upgrade it to the latest release without breaking the VPN connection. We can unplug things and see how the database copes, and whether it manages to get its bearings and pick up where it left off once the connection comes back.Engineers are like children: we like stuff that’s new, and we like trying stuff out and finding things out for ourselves
Buy some assorted hard disks – SATA and SAS spinning disks and various types of Flash drive – and do real benchmarks and show yourself just what the difference is. Record what you see, because when you then look back to the cloud for your production systems you’ll be so much more convinced that (say) the extra performance of the SSD storage option is worth it – because you’ll remember that “Holy crap!” moment when you saw how fast the benchmark was on your own physical box, run by your own fair hand.

The cloud abstracts everything too much to be useful for infrastructure research and testing, and so an in-house alternative is the obvious way to go.And the thing is, engineers are like children: we like stuff that’s new, and we like trying stuff out and finding things out for ourselves. And if this can involve real engineering, with real metal boxes (preferably with the lids off where possible), and flashing lights, and bits of electric string, all the better.And this means physical kit. On our premises. Combine this with the undeniable fact that experimenting is fun, and it’s the obvious way of getting the fun stuff back into the data centre. Microsoft’s support forums and the Surface subreddit are filled with folks claiming their displays erratically wink completely on and off. This happens, we’re told, whether the tablet is running on its own or when it’s docked in its base station."A small number of customers have flagged some issues with their Surface Book," a Redmond spokesperson told The Register. "We are working hard to resolve them quickly and easily with Windows Update."

The reports come just two days into the retail run for the high-end Microsoft tablet-notebook convertible. Marketed as a high-end expansion on the Surface Pro, the Surface Book starts at a price of $1500 and offers up to an Intel Core i7 processor and 1TB SSD in the tablet, with an additional Nvidia discrete GPU built into the keyboard dock.That high-priced, hefty hardware package seems to be coming with some early hiccups. A video captured by one Surface Book owner shows the mysterious screen flicker in action."Just got my unit, i7 512GB. Applied all the updates (including the recent firmware). My screen keeps flickering on/off, whether or not the screen is docked," user Jarem said of the problem."I’ve tried resetting but the issue still persists. It also seems independent of running apps or focused windows. Adjusting the brightness doesn’t resolve the issue.""It doesn’t seem to do it when the screen is attached in laptop mode, but flipping the screen around makes it flicker like crazy," wrote user JohnnyLocust."Spent about 2 hours with tech support on the phone. All we did was a complete factory reset and reinstall the latest firmware and drivers. One hour later, the flicker started right back up."While the cause of the flickering has not yet been determined, users have suggested the problem may be related to Hyper-V, as some reported that disabling the Windows 10 hypervisor alleviates the flickering issue.Though many Windows users will not need Hyper-V enabled, the issue could be a problem for the Surface book in particular, as Redmond has positioned the tablet, with its in-dock discrete GPU, as a solution for high-end enterprise users.

This week, the pair developing the Novena open laptop have provided an update on their work. The idea is to develop a usable system that is completely open to customization and scrutiny – from the electronics to the firmware to the operating system to the applications.This is ideal for people paranoid there is malicious code hidden in closed-source drivers and firmware in their motherboards and hardware, or just fed up with insecure and broken closed-source software from manufacturers.Andrew Huang and Sean Cross, two self-employed engineers living in Singapore, built their computer around a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9-powered Freescale system-on-chip and a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) – the specs are here. (The pair trust the system-on-chip and the FPGA behave as documented.)Even the display bezel is hackable, with Huang explaining: "Anyone with access to an entry-level machine shop can fabricate a custom bezel to accommodate a different LCD, as well as mount additional sensors (such as a camera or a microphone) or additional buttons and knobs."A crowdfunding round via Crowd Supply 18 months ago far exceeded its goals, even though prices ranged from $1,195 to a $5,000 wooden model.The pair were obliged to reject RedHat and Ubuntu because they required black-box drivers for GPU acceleration to draw the pointless desktop eye candy, and opted for a fully free Debian on GNU/Linux with the Xfce4 window manager.

"We hope eventually to figure out enough of the GPU to let us do 3D graphics with acceleration sufficient to produce a user experience much like that of any mainstream laptop," the guys said.The pair want you to think of it as a piece of lab equipment. A software-defined radio board was developed for the Novena by Myriad RF to avoid using more black-box radio hardware and firmware.As an exercise in producing an open system from scratch, it’s fascinating. The Novena board has already been used as the basis for a crypto key signing box, Cryptech.You can read the duo’s adventures at the IEEE’s Spectrum, here. For what it’s worth, a startup called Purism is doing similar with an x86-based laptop, but it relies on Intel’s closed-source processor initialization firmware, which gives some people the heebie-jeebies. Analysis Microsoft stubbornly refuses to let go of making hardware, but now the reasons why CEO Satya Nadella has not followed his clear instinct to ditch devices (except Xbox) are becoming clearer.

We have analysed many times why Microsoft should not make smartphones and tablets, mainly because of conflicts of interest with the OEM partners which have always been the basis of its model. However, there is the defensive reason that without the former Nokia products, there would be very few Windows handsets at all. The software giant is ill-equipped, in terms of its business model and its capabilities, to be a vendor of mass market hardware.Yet it does need Windows 10 to live up to its promises of spanning every kind of device and screen, which means continuing to provide users, especially in the business sector, with the option of a Windows smartphone.
And the Surface range is starting to justify the approach that software platform giants need to create and drive new form factors themselves by showcasing the capabilities of their operating systems on their own hardware. Microsoft has taken that tack in the past, though usually retreating quickly once a particular product gained traction among "real" hardware vendors (as seen with its Wi-Fi access point, for instance).Google has done the same with Nexus. Neither of these represents the integrated hardware/platform business model of Apple – briefly chased by Nadella’s predecessor Steve Ballmer, with the resulting failure of the Nokia devices acquisition. Instead they show the need for a new OS to have worthy devices.

With the first Surface tablets, it was clear that Microsoft should have left this task to its partners. Google may have complained, when it launched the first release of Android for larger screens, that very few device makers could produce a quality experience to live up to the OS’s potential. But that is not true of Microsoft, which has established and capable customers such as Acer and Asustek.They were vocal in their misgivings about the Windows giant competing with them with Surface.However, between the unloved Surface RT and this week’s launch of the Surface Book, there has been a significant change, partly driven by the emergence of Windows 10 and partly by the decline of the conventional PC. It is imperative that W10 – Microsoft’s last chance to remain a company with its own OS rather than just a multi-platform service provider – succeeds in that post-PC space which is currently being defined, and will include some combination of tablet touchscreens and notebook keyboards, at the base level. There have been all kinds of experiment with these hybrids, but unexpectedly, Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet-with-keyboard has proved definitive, especially since W10 came along.

To prove that point, we only had to see Apple head-to-head with its old enemy with its launch of the iPad Pro, a clear response to the Surface Pro. Now Microsoft has returned the compliment with the launch of its first notebook, the Surface Book. The dividing line between a professional tablet and a laptop is blurring, but increasingly it seems that, after many experiment with post-PC form factors, this is where the successor to the PC will be found.
Both Microsoft and Apple are looking to colonize the space via a pincer movement. Both are now offering a beefed-up tablet with optional keyboard, and an ultraslim laptop, though the MacBook Air does not yet have a touchscreen, and Apple CEO Tim Cook last week insisted that, unlike Microsoft, his firm had no plans to converge its mobile/touch and notebook/desktop operating systems.So it’s back to the good old days of Windows and Apple Mac fighting it out for the business base – though with the critical difference that Microsoft is making its own hardware rather than relying on its PC OEMs. Just as one of the problems for Windows Phone was the conflict of interest between the Microsoft/Nokia alliance and the bid to create a broad device ecosystem, so Microsoft risks the same effect in the emerging market for tablet/notebook hybrids.

That form factor, with its assorted variations from Intel Ultrabooks to Surface Pro tablets, will be vital to propel Windows 10 growth, but despite the latter-day success of the Surface family, Microsoft cannot dominate the post-PC territory all by itself. To fend off MacBooks, iPads, Chromebooks and Android devices, it needs to have a broad base of OEMs making innovative Windows 10 products. If it confines its Surface launches to a leadership role – demonstrating to OEMs, developers and users what can be done with W10, as Google does for Android with Nexus – that should be possible. But if it competes with its own partners, it risks driving them towards Linux.The Surface Book sports a 13.5-inch touchscreen which detaches to work as a standalone tablet. It claims up to 12 hours of battery life and comes in flexible configurations, with choices of memory (up to 16GB of RAM), hard drive size (up to a terabyte) and processor speed. The device runs on sixth-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors with Intel HD graphics, and there is an optional Nvidia GeForce GPU. All that comes at a price – $1,499 for the entry level model, up to $2,699 for the top end.

The Surface Book has a decent chance of becoming a successful device in its own right, and not purely as an accelerant for new W10 form factors – though that will be a double-edged sword for Microsoft, whose PC partners still have to pay for Windows licences for larger gadgets, and which have Chrome and Linux alternatives in their sights too, if they feel squeezed out of the post-PC segment. On the other hand, a successful Surface could help keep Windows relevant and in-demand, proving to the OEMs that there is still a good reason to stay loyal to the old platform.
The situation is very different for the Lumia smartphones, which are not defending a dominant position, like Surface, but struggling with single-digit market share and no obvious role in life except to ensure that W10 options are available across all form factors.The first Lumia smartphones designed specifically for Windows 10 made their debut with all the genuinely strong attributes of former Nokia products – the innovative Windows Phone user interface, now the basis of the whole W10 experience: the top class imaging. But they launched without US carrier support and with the usual challenge of a far smaller apps base than Android or iOS.

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