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Personal Blog

It's true. We're finally on to BT's Superfast package! Finally our internet connection at home is fast enough to download a server backup each day without sacrificing the whole connection.

After doing a speed test this morning I have noticed that we've had a huge increase in speed. From 12Mbps all the way up to as high as 48Mbps, we're getting a much better all-round experience.

Upload isn't bad either - we're getting 8Mbps which is 16 times faster than the 0.5Mbps upload we got yesterday!

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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I thought I'd share some Linux wisdom with you all. Today I'm talking about symbolic links.

Until recently I have been making my live site a direct duplicate of all content of the development site. This meant that I needed to have two copies of all static files. Uh oh. For instance, my photo gallery on my website is about 400MB in size, so that's 800MB used for the photo gallery between the development site and the live site. 

Overall, the method described is expensive and isn't necessary. I have been for quite a while considering symblinking the two to avoid static content being duplicated. Alas, it has been done. I now have a new section on the web server called user_content - a place where all user content that is identical between the live and development websites will go. This not only simplifies the copying of content by no longer needing a manual copy between the development and live sites, but it also reduces the storage space that was wasted with the old design.

For example:

Bash
ln -s /www/user_content/jamiebalfour.com/files/gallery /www/sites/jamiebalfour.com/public/live/gallery/content

simplifies the whole process of the gallery updates on both the development and live sites.

Overall, using symbolic links has made huge differences to my web server.

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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Today I attended the Amazon AWSome conference and today I decided in the next few weeks I will move over to use AWS in more and more of my projects.

The conference was very useful because it gave me an insight into how I would use AWS but it also covered the basics of getting started and how I can migrate to the Amazon cloud service. I found the talk interesting and I found that the presenters were well informed on what they were speaking about and within the first part of the day I decided it's time to move to using it.

So what did I learn? Well, perhaps most crucially, I learned that it's not as daunting as I first imagined and that they have most of the features I currently have available from day one. I also learned that it's not going to be overly expensive to make the shift - perhaps cheaper in the long run too.

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk

I'm sure that a lot of you will remember a lot of revolutions in technology, but perhaps the biggest one was when we moved away from parallel ports, slow serial ports and eventually even PS/2 and moved to USB. Eventually, the competition started to appear such as FireWire and eSATA, whose focus was mostly on storage as opposed to general (or universal) use. Both have pretty much vanished. eSATA attempted to side with USB by forming a combo port, but unfortunately did not last, partly due to the lack of robustness in SATA and eSATA cables and partly due to the fact that SATA as a standard has all but been replaced by PCI Express.

We all knew that when PCI-X and AGP were superseded by PCI's younger sibling, PCI Express, that it had come back with a vengeance. Boasting 2.5Gbps across a single lane all the way back in 2004, PCI Express was bound for success.

A single lane PCI Express card

But it's not until now that one of the things I've dreamt of has become a reality. Back in 2011, I proposed on my blog an idea to expand PCI Express into external GPUs through the use of ExpressCard - an exceptionally clever use of both PCI Express and USB to make a single standard capable of multiple speeds (sounds familiar, right?). Of course, eGPUs did exist for ExpressCard, but they were slow and cumbersome - not something many people would want.

Behold, Thunderbolt! Thunderbolt was original only capable of 10Gbps, which is the speed of a single PCI-E version 3 lane - that's a 16th of a desktop graphics cards maximum bandwidth. So next came Thunderbolt 2, capable of twice the speed, we're now talking about 20Gbps, and eGPUs were now actually possible. The problem with Thunderbolt 2 is that there were very few eGPUs made. One possible reason for this is because the majority of computers featuring Thunderbolt 2 were Macs. Not many PCs were built with the capability to use Thunderbolt 2, and it makes little sense to make an eGPU for Mac users since the majority of us don't intend to play games on our Macs and use them more for productivity. 

Thunderbolt now uses the USB-C connector

Of course, the natural successor to Thunderbolt 2 was Thunderbolt 3. Prior to the announcement of Thunderbolt 3, Intel was working on improving the old USB standard to feature a more robust, smaller, yet more capable USB connection. Since USB Type A and USB Type B already existed, USB Type C was the name for this connection. USB Type C, or USB-C as it is often referred to, offered up to 10Gbps over the USB standard, aptly named USB 3.1. Within a few weeks of USB-C being announced, it was made clear that the new USB-C connector (remember, USB Type C is the name of the connector, not the standard) would also become the connector for Thunderbolt (Thunderbolt has always been lazy since originally it used the mini DisplayPort connector as the primary interconnect for Thunderbolt). 

USB-C as the primary Thunderbolt connector meant that this new connector offers USB 3.1 speeds of 10Gbps, DisplayPort speeds of 17Gbps, HDMI speeds of 18Gbps and Thunderbolt speeds of 40Gbps, all over the one connector. To me this is awesome. This means so much will get replaced by this connector. 

Let's take a look at what this connector is directly capable of:

  • Thunderbolt 3 - x4 PCI Express Generation 3
  • DisplayPort 1.2
  • HDMI 2.0
  • USB 3.1
  • VGA - through DisplayPort
  • DVI - through DisplayPort or HDMI
  • USB 3.0
  • Native PCI Express cards supporting so many connections such as FireWire, eSATA, RS232, LPT and much more
  • PCI through PCI Express converter
  • Thunderbolt 1 and 2 devices

Because of the ability to connect straight on to the system bus (PCI Express), the system can indeed use many different PCI Express cards directly. 

So, whilst I originally was concerned that Thunderbolt would destroy all other connectors, the Thunderbolt standard seems to have added better native connectivity to older standards than before, which is amazing. One connector for all seems to finally be true.

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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As a developer, there is one thing that is at the top of my list of things that I need to decide on - the text editor.

The development environment needs to be pleasing and make you feel comfortable (whilst developing Dash I feel quite the same way, if the content management system isn't user friendly, you can't be comfortable using it). I've been through a lot of editors - starting with a bunch of versions of Visual Studio, including Visual Studio 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013. They are all brilliant and I'm glad that I made the choice to use them for about 7 or so years whilst I was a .NET developer.

Things changed quickly though as I became a developer based on Mac OS X. I was forced to find a new editor that suited my development purposes. When I stopped developing in VB.NET and C# and began developing Java, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP etc. I found that I needed to find a new IDE that would suit those purposes. For the vast majority of those (all the web based ones) I used Aptana Studio 3. Aptana was brilliant but it quickly felt dated but I just could not afford the time to get a new editor without being certain that it was right for me. A good IDE needs to be extremely colourful (because that helps highlight different syntaxes), be fast and not prone to crashing (as Aptana eventually started doing) and be feature rich. For me one of the most important features of the IDE is support for SFTP. Aptana offers this out of the box. I then moved from Aptana to Eclipse with the Aptana plugin - pretty good to be honest. 

Eclipse is brilliant for Java development, and I still use it because it can compile a JAR file in so few steps, it can interpret and debug programs well and it just feels like it was designed for Java. However, Eclipse was eventually laden with the same bug that Aptana has and would crash from time to time - particularly when in the Web perspective.

So I made another move, this time to Adobe Brackets. I jumped on the Brackets bandwagon when it was pretty young, and I loved it. Syntax highlighting is lovely, it's feature rich and it's open source. Unfortunately, this jump was too early - Brackets just didn't have everything I needed. In 2015, I started an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. As a result I gave Dreamweaver a try and I liked it (looking back, I don't know why I liked it really other than the fact it had SFTP built in). 

Introducing Atom

Atom is now my favourite text editor. After being introduced to it by a colleague at work, I feel like I've come to love it. It's colourful, well designed, doesn't crash and has everything I need from a text editor or IDE. 

Atom is my new IDE of choice

Why is Atom nearly the perfect editor though? Well my first reason is that Atom has clear colouring - it's dark interface clearly defines the background from the foreground and its syntax highlighting is bright and stands out well. On top of this, Atom features a plugin system that means that if the feature you want is not available, it's likely to be available as a plugin somewhere. Atom is fast - it doesn't slow down too much as files get larger - I'm talking about PHP files, which I always break into logical files which rarely exceed 3,000 lines. 

People may say what about Visual Studio Code, since being from a Visual Studio background surely I'd like that? Well yeah I do. But I found Atom to be even nicer.

I think that if you are reading this and looking for a new text editor with a beautiful touch to it, Atom is well worth a try.

If you have a different favourite, I want to know what your favourite editor is. 

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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Whenever I am asked why I bothered building a personal website or why someone needs a personal website my reply is often something along the lines of 'it's fun' or 'it's my hobby'. But I very rarely touch on the benefits of my personal website.

There are a huge number of benefits to my own personal website. I get around 500 visitors a month on my website. I use it to showcase my work to potential employers, to get myself on the internet in a public way that people can connect with me through but there are also other things. I enjoy learning and teaching, so my website is also a source of information where I put tutorials to help others learn stuff that I know. 

But really what's the benefit? My first answer is that it's professional. The brand that my website pushes forward gives me a uniqueness that appears on all of my work now. The orange and blue theme of my website is also apparent on my CV, any letterheads I send and on certain emails. This looks highly professional and people like to see this. I also believe that having your own brand puts you above others who do not. 

The second reason that having a personal website is that the website is, well, personal - it's all about you. LinkedIn is great for connecting but it's full of other people too. Go to jamiebalfour.com and who do you think you are reading about? That's right, some guy called Jamie Balfour. There's nothing about John Szymanski or Murray Smith on there (well there might be). This keeps the reader focused on you. You can write soley about how good you are and all of your achievements and yeah, be a narcissist, blow your own trumpet!

The third reason I would say having a personal website is a must is because it gives people an easy way to read about you. A personal website allows people to read about you from all corners of the globe. Social media is great, but it's also ladden with other things, like other people, a like LinkedIn.

I will admit my website is more of a personal project that evolved into something more. For anyone in computer science it's pretty nice to show that you can build a website from scratch, so I did exactly that (it shows a lot of perseverance too). 

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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Ultrabooks are amazing devices - combining high end mobile computing power with a slim design and decent battery life. The first ultrabook released was probably the MacBook Air, a moment I remember like it was yesterday. I've always really liked them and have always had an interest in them but never went out and got one.

In the last few years I've been following the development of one or two of them but one came to my attention - the Razer Blade Stealth. This ultra portable features two USB 3.0 ports and one USB-C port. The USB-C port also supports 40Gb/s over Thunderbolt allowing Razer to take advantage of the PCI-Express standard built into the laptop itself. As a result, Razer have developed the Razer Core, an external dock which features a full PCI-Express x16 slot in it. This allows you to insert a discrete desktop graphics card into the dock and use this as the laptops graphics processor. This is why this Ultrabook excited me so much.

Now the latest Razer Blade Stealth has arrived in the UK and is available to buy from their website.

The thing is I'm saving my money and until I decide to sell my MacBook Pro, if that ever happens, I cannot be buying this laptop. 

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk

A couple of months back I was the victim to a website (not to be named) that was hacked and ultimately gave the information of it's users away that ultimately included my information. The reason behind this was that passwords were not stored in a effective manner. This meant that the minute you have access to the database you have access to all of these passwords.

What this now meant for me was that they had my email address and my actual address and began to subscribe me to many things I would never sign up to whilst also sharing my user name and password details on the web. It's a cold and horrible thing for someone to contemplate doing because I had done nothing to them in the first place for them to launch an attack at me. And to be honest the website who was a website who's sole duty was to help others - so it's pretty cruel to do that. Anyway, storing details about people in a secure manner is an important factor of online security.

What an unsecure database may look like

In a world where security is not a thing, algorithms such as the SHA (secure hash algorithm) would not exist in the field of security. In fact, the field of security would not need to exist. But unfortunately, because there are people who want to either steal something or just for the sake of it damage something, we have to compensate for this by developing secure ways of storing information.

In the world without security however, passwords could be stored as plain text - simply as they were typed in to the text input. This means that anyone who has access to the database can then scroll down to the appropriate field and read their password. Unfortunately however, if a hacker gains access to this information, they have access to the raw password - that's the password they can use to login to the system. This is not good. So database designers and web developers and so on go a step further and use some kind of algorithm to conceal the password.

How to store sensitive data effectively

When data like a password is put into the database it should be encoded using some kind of algorithm.

The first way of storing passwords is to create or use an encryption algorithm to encode the password and a decryption algorithm to re-obtain the password from the cipher text. This method is uncommon because it means that there is at least one method to decrypt the password in the database, and therefore leaves open a security vulnerability (if someone obtains this decryption algorithm and the key needed to decrypt the passwords, they can simply decrypt every password and it's easy enough to figure the key out if you have a password and it's cipher text). 

The most common algorithm is the SHA because it's been guaranteed to have a one-to-one mapping from the plain text to the cipher text - meaning that no two passwords generate the same cipher text. When this algorithm is applied it is designed to be irreversible, that is it is impossible (or at least near impossible) to figure out what the original text was (at least without going through each combination of characters and testing it against the cipher text). This method is more secure than the former since it does not offer a quick way to take a cipher text and turn it to a plain text. 

These are just two ways of storing passwords but you can probably find other ways. I use a combination of both on my website (my own hashing algorithm and my own encryption algorithm on top).

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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storing
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Windows 10 was an amazing operating system for a few days when I first installed it on to my gaming PC. My gaming PC, The Zebra X2, is a beast of a machine which can run most games that I play like Starcraft II and GTA V in the highest available settings (Core i7 4770K, 256GB SSD, 8GB DDR3 RAM and an AMD 7950) but latterly it struggled with simple things like starting up.

After I installed Windows 10 the machine ran fine. However, one day when I was playing a favourite game of mine, Command and Conquer 3, I noticed a slight drop in framerate from playing it the time before. I didn't think too much of it at the time but gradually I noticed that each time I played this game it was getting worse. At the very end before I ridded myself of Windows 10 it was running so slow that when I used the graphics intensive Ion Cannon superweapon the game would just freeze and the animation for the superweapon would not be shown. The game would resume after the Ion Cannon blast was finished. So what the heck was going on?

My initial thoughts were that the hard disk drives that I stored my games on were starting to fail. I tested them all with SMART tools and none of them showed any signs of failure. I then assumed that it was my SSD so decided to install an old SATA III HDD into the system and installed Windows 7 on to it. It ran fine. I upgraded it to Windows 10 and again, it ran fine. So I assumed it was the SSD. I left the SSD in the system just disconnected. 

After time, the same weird thing happened to my system - it began slowing and the graphics were getting messed up in games. So now I assumed it was the graphics card or the PCI controller that had failed on me. I took the GPU out of the system and used the dedicated graphics built in to the CPU. The system ran just the same so I now knew it wasn't the graphics card that had failed, but wasn't sure if it was a motherboard fault such as the PCI controller or the memory controller.

I decided to reinstall the SSD and flash my BIOS. Clearing the BIOS meant that I could set it back to the factory defaults and test it with them (I had tried this several times before but to no avail). Nothing changed. 

My next choice was to clear the SSD and install Windows 7 on it. After reinstalling I panicked slightly as it wasn't working well at all with the Desktop Window Manager crashing on startup. After installing Service Pack 1 everything seemed to work perfectly. I would like to say that Windows 7 was the solution but I can't be sure. 

I would probably put the problem down to several things: Windows 10 was clogging up the system (don't know why), the original BIOS was not designed for Windows 10 and would have required an update (I have since updated again and may try it again in the future with Windows 10) and that Windows just needed that little reformat that us Windows users need to do on a regular basis.

My fix appeared to have come from the reinstall of Windows 7 and the BIOS reset. I will keep everyone up to date with my progress with Windows 10 again in the future.

The Windows 10 upgrade tool can be a pain!

Due to the upgrade tool in Windows 7, I have been upgraded to Windows 10. This time the system appears to be running well - that is at least in comparison to how it was before. I will keep you posted when it begins to slow down again (if it does).

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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USB-C seems set to take over now

The future of physical connectivity in computer systems looks very limited. One day in the future I can foresee all devices connecting with a connection not too dissimilar to USB Type C. The reversible USB connector that was released a year back with the new MacBook was received with both positive and negative responses. For me, it was an incredibly positive product since it does a lot of things in one.

Apple just didn't get it right by releasing it with just the one connector. At the moment, adapters are still not everyone's cup of tea. In fact, for most people, adapters never will be a good solution. 

Anyway, the main point of this post is not talking about the MacBook, it's talking about something that I feel strongly about, physical connectivity.

One connector for all...

I don't really like this one connector for all since I've always liked the idea of different connectors for everything. 

You know, I remember when I made the switch to FireWire over USB about 7 years ago, I thought that buying all my drives with FireWire would be great since it's going to be the future of data connectivity. I know I was late in coming in, but I didn't expect it to be removed from all of my devices within a few years! I mean take my Macs for instance, my Retina MacBook Pro does have a Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter available, but this isn't ideal and it's expensive. My Mac Mini does have a FireWire 800 connector on it but the new models also require the adapter since they no longer feature FireWire on them. My PC is just as annoying however, since it doesn't even have a FireWire header on it. My previous PC (the Zebra, built in 2011) featured a Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3 motherboard which had 3 FireWire connectors (including headers) and then all of a sudden, an upgrade 2 years later to a Gigabyte GA-Z87-UD3H motherboard and a Haswell architecture, and I've suddenly got no FireWire connectors. 

Actually, one of the most annoying things is all of my PCI cards (not PCI-Express) which I've been using since about 1998 when I got my first PC, including a really old, but still useful, video capture card (circa 2000), no longer work on my system since there are no free PCI slots in my system (I have a serial port card and a TV tuner in them). 

A single connector for all also bring about the concern of overloading buses or whether or not everything is polled (as USB is). Speed can become an issue when one connector is used for everything. 

However, one connector for all is a good thing too, since every device you use will use that connector and it's easy to remember what you need to use the device (i.e. a USB-C cable). But many companies, such as Apple, are difficult and try too hard with their own connectors and make the one for all difficult. Look at the Lightning connector for example, every other smartphone uses Micro USB 2.0 or Micro USB 3.0 meaning you can share your charger with any other smartphone user; that is everyone except iPhone users. It never works. One for all is too difficult.

Complications also arise when you are working with very specific applications. I for one still use the 1980s RS232 standard for many things such as electronic circuit boards for experiments (although I'm looking into using a RPi for this in the future) and for control commands for my projector. With a connector like USB-C, this becomes more complicated since RS232 was a highly simple connector, it becomes harder to emulate old standards. 

Another even more annoying thing is having to buy an adapter to make it work with your older devices such as serial port devices. These devices may be hard to come by, but the bigger issue is if we end up needing all these adapters we've got to pay for them, and more specific adapters will probably be fairly expensive.

Here is a comparison table showing how Thunderbolt has changed over the years:

Version Maximum Speed Maximum Power Output Connector Type
Thunderbolt 10Gbps 10W Mini Displayport
Thunderbolt 2 20Gbps 10W Mini Displayport
Thunderbolt 3 40Gbps 100W USB-C

Notice any similarities between Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C that was announced on the new MacBook? That's because they will likely merge.

The conclusion

Here's my solution: make the one connector for all a reality, just keep the old connectors alongside this new connector, thus giving people, like me, the option to use older connectors without needing to buy the adapter. This keeps costs down, but also leaves users of older devices able to continue to use them. Don't cut out USB Type A and replace all mice and keyboards with USB-C connectors. 

We cannot live in a world where we need to keep all of these dongles for everything, it's simply ineffective and expensive, especially when one breaks down. I believe because we have come from a world of loads of different connectors into a world wanting a single connector for all that we will be faced with many problems. This is particularly the case with industries such as the music industry, where devices of today really lack in the connectivity side of things. I mean the world got rid of the Gameport (or MIDI port) without any major problems, but for those who had purchased MIDI devices that used the Gameport-style connector as the input, they had to go out and buy adapters or get new devices. The change can come on too rapidly, especially for some. The slow but very painful disappearance of FireWire in the last few years has made it's mark, even for me since I can no longer connect my FireWire drives to my PC (I can with my Mac mini thankfully). And now companies are phasing out audio jacks and in particular the multi audio jack system, and all in favour of USB or single audio jack solutions.

Posted by J B Balfour in Tech talk
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