Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Using Google Apps for email

For most people, an email account with bigpond, Yahoo, hotmail or gmail is sufficient for their needs. These email providers will allow large enough mailboxes for most uses. Yet if your needs are more complex, in particular if you want to use your own domain name (such as me@mybusiness.com) then you will need to look at paying for this feature. There are many email providers that offer this and other features. I have recently setup a business with Google's service, called Google Apps. As the name implies, it is not just email but a set of cloud services for business collaboration. This includes document sharing, shared calendars and drive space to mention only a few. This is suited to small businesses that don't want to setup their own servers and infrastructure. It is also useful if the business has people spread across many different locations, as the services are located in the cloud (ie. on the internet).

Google charge for their services on a per user basis, which is equivalent to a person. You can have multiple domains or business names per mailbox but only 1 mailbox per person. So you may have me@mybusiness.com and me@myshop.com going to the same mailbox, but if you wanted email to go to another person such as john@mybusiness.com then that will require a second user license. Google has flexible options for licensing, either a monthly charge of $5/user/month or you can pay $50/user/annum. The monthly option is useful if you want to have short term employees use an email account for a limited time.

Windows 8 Start Menu

I have written in my previous articles about the limitations of Windows 8, namely, the change in the interface and user experience. This was a deliberate move by Microsoft to meet the rising demand of tablet computing which has resulted in declining sales of traditional PCs. I think Microsoft has miscalculated the trend though as there are still a large number of PC users which prefer the traditional Windows interface. I know that some computer stores won't even offer Windows 8 on their new PCs, preferring to install Windows 7, and for good reason. Windows 8 is so different that most everyday computer users get very confused with the new layout. The key area of difficulty is the start menu. This has been removed in Windows 8 and is now called the start screen. Microsoft brought back the start button in Windows 8.1, but this was just cosmetic as it took you to the start screen anyway.  As a side note, Windows 8.1 is a free update to  to all Windows 8 owners, and in fact is required update in order for future patches to be accessible.

There are ways to reclaim the traditional start menu experience. You can set preferences in Windows 8.1 so that the desktop is the default view when starting up and this can simplify navigation. You can also install 3rd party start buttons. I have used the free app called Classic Shell (www.classicshell.net). In essence this brings back the start menu with easy access to all programs and settings (including easy access to the shutdown menu). Classic Shell also comes with customisations to windows explorer and internet explorer that make it familiar to older style Windows users. Installation is straight forward, just download the installer from the classic shell website and run through the installation wizard. Once this is complete you can choose the start menu style you prefer and customise other user experience options in the settings.

Microsoft will be releasing Windows 9 over the next year and I hope they heed the discontent that Windows users have experienced and bring back the ease of use that traditional desktop users are used to. If they don't, they might find themselves losing even greater market share to free alternatives such as the many Linux variants available (see my previous article on Linux options in the April edition). 

Volunteer Computing

So you wish you had time to contribute to a worthy cause, but you just can't find the time to do it? Don't worry, you can get your computer to do the volunteering for you. Your computer probably spends most of its time idle with nothing better to do anyhow, so now you can get it to contribute towards finding a cure for disease, or modeling the effects of climate change or even finding intelligent life beyond the stars.

Volunteer computing is when you donate your spare computing time to projects that gather a lot of data that requires processing. An example of this is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI project. Their goal is to detect intelligent life outside of Earth and they do this by analysing data from radio telescopes, searching for radio patterns that would be indicative of intelligent life. There is a huge amount of data to search through and this is where the distributed computing power of volunteer computing becomes very useful. Traditionally scientist would use extremely powerful supercomputers to crunch the data, but these are expensive and getting time on these systems can be difficult. Distributed computing breaks the data into small chunks and then sends that out to thousands of volunteer computers to do the work required.

There are around 50 projects that use this distributed computing model. Volunteers computers need to have internet access and sufficient resources to run the BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) software.  You will need an account to log your volunteer hours to as well. This is also a great way to see how much you have contributed to the project. Once BOINC is installed you can configure it for the best time to use your computer (e.g. overnight or during weekdays etc) and then you can choose which project to contribute to. If you want to run multiple projects or setup a team, you can use an account manager (GridRepublic or BAM!) that will manage this for you.

I have found that I don't even notice the impact on my computer when BOINC is running (I'm running the climateprediction@home project) and any recent model computer will have plenty of spare resources to cope with the workload. If you do find BOINC slowing your computer down then change the settings so it uses less processor power or runs when you are not using the PC. For more information check the links below. Happy volunteering!