Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Diving into the Digital Ocean

I’ve been looking for a good, online continuous integration solution since late 2007. It’s useful, even as a lone developer, although running it on your development machine can be problematic, especially as back then I developed on a number of different machines and those I wasn’t using were turned off.

IaaS (Infrastructure As A Service) was in its infancy then and those providers I spoke to were shocked at the idea of building and running an executable, especially as the boxes were predominantly shared. My hosting provider installed Cruise Control for me, but it never really worked. 

In the end I used a spare machine at work to run Jenkins and at home I went without until I decided to buy a server and virtualise it. That worked quite well, but it took a lot of setup and the performance wasn’t great. I couldn’t afford a huge amount of memory or super fast disks. That worked sufficiently for about eighteen months until I gave the machine a good dusting internally and it refused to start again. So I was back to looking at online providers.

In the meantime PaaS (Platform As A Service) had come along and Cloudbees have quite a good hosted Jenkins based offering for Java development. The free tier gives you a limited number of minutes per month but I found I used these up far too quickly. One reason being that it ran very slowly. I was told that the paid for tier was much, much faster but at $99/month, for me at least, it didn’t represent value for money. Plus a lot of my projects run integration tests against a variety of databases and using the Cloudbees solution would mean I’d have to also find a database hosted elsewhere. Cloudbees have a fantastic offering but it’s not for me.

By this time I was writing a course on Continuous Integration that also used Sonar for measuring code quality and ideally I wanted a hosted solution for that. Again, there is one, but it costs $20/month.

Having heard a great deal about Amazon Web Services (AWS) I turned to that. From the start I found it unintuitive and complicated in the extreme. How to get going and the billing were quite opaque to me and I had to rely on some help from a colleague. I started off with an S3 Ubuntu Linux instance running Sonar and MySQL, both of which died frequently. So I moved to AWS Linux and a separate database server, both of which I thought were in the free tier, that is until I received a bill for nearly £200. Thankfully AWS saw my point of view and refunded the money. 

To be on the safe side I removed all my instances and started again. This time just with a free S3 AWS Linux instance that I used to run Jenkins for a local NRUG meeting. I haven’t used it since.

My perception of my own behaviour is that I don’t usually respond to online advertising. However, when the Digital Ocean advert for server instances with 512 MB of RAM and 20GB of SSD space for $5 a month popped up on Facebook it was too much to resist. I clicked though. And set up an account in just a few seconds, but then I left it for a couple of weeks or more as it takes time setting these things up from scratch and I was busy with other things.

Then I started a new project that needed Sonar, Jenkins and Nexus (artefact repository). I logged back into Digital Ocean and went about creating a droplet (what Digital Ocean calls a server instance) for Sonar. It was fantastically easy in only a few steps:
  1. Select a host name.
  2. Select a size. There are six sizes to choose from ranging from 512 MB RAM, 1 CPU, 20GB SSD storage and 1TB of traffic for $5 per month to 16GB RAM, 16 CPUs, 160GB SSD, 6TB of traffic for $160 per month.
  3. Select a region to host the Droplet. The choice is New York 1, New York 2, Amsterdam 1, Amsterdam 2 or Singapore 1.
  4. Select an image. There are five Linux distributions to choose from Ubuntu, CentOS, Debian, Arch Linux, Fedora. You can also choose the version.
  5. Click create droplet.
The root password is emailed to you almost immediately and in less than 60 seconds the droplet is created, ready to go and you can SSH into it. That really is all there is to it.

I got Sonar set up really quite quickly as I’ve done a few times in the past. Then another Ubuntu droplet to run MySQL, another to run Jenkins and another to run Nexus. It was all so easy I managed to get most of it set up in a single evening and it all worked just like it was my own instance on my own box running in my own data centre. 

I did have one problem, that I had also seen with the AWS instance. Sonar would frequently fail to respond for a few minutes. I thought there  might not be enough memory for the droplet running Sonar (512MB) or the droplet running MySQL (which already had 1GB). Increasing the memory of the Sonar droplet to 1GB was incredibly easy. I shut it down, went into the droplet configuration, upped the memory and restarted. The problem went away.

It became apparent that a JIRA instance would be really helpful for running Norfolk Developers, The Norfolk Tech Journal and a few other projects. JIRA hosting is from $10 a month. If you have your own hardware its $10 a year, if not free. So I went back to Digital Ocean and set up a new droplet with 2GB of RAM, installed JIRA and pointed it at the existing MySQL database. All without a hitch.

I now have six droplets running on Digital Ocean and haven’t had a problem with any of them. The bill for the first month came to measly sum of $16 (a little over £10). I have all the flexibility I need with very little complexity at an affordable price. Digital Ocean is a simple service, you don’t get all the fancy tools that you have with AWS, but if you have straight forward needs and/or are just starting out I would recommend you start with Digital Ocean.

Originally published on the Norfolk Tech Journal.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Norfolk Software Leaders

Talking smarter together.

The best decisions are rarely taken in isolation. They’re the happy outcome of conversation, the back-and-forth of ideas and knowledge, and keeping an ear to the ground. In the fast-flowing waters of software, it’s those ideas, that knowledge, and solid networking that can make all the difference.

So why aren’t we talking?

Norfolk Software Leaders brings the region's  brightest and best leaders and decision-makers together for clever conversation, smart business, and informal networking.

We meet monthly for lunch at All Bar One in Tombland in Norwich.

To join the group and find out what’s happening and when, visit the meetup site or contact Paul Grenyer. You can follow Norfolk Software Leaders on twitter, @NorSoftLead.

Words: Indi Debah

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men isn’t a sci-fi and it doesn’t have Keira Knightley in it, but it does have guns! So it just about meets my loose criteria for a good film. The Monuments Men is fantastic and perfectly cast. You should go and see it. There have been a lot of films for older actors in the last few years and they’re usually cheesy, entertaining, but ultimately rubbish (although I do love the expendables).

It moves along at a reasonable and consistent pace throughout. As with a lot of World War II films, it starts with a specialist team being put together from soldiers and other professionals who have been put out to pasture. But unlike a lot of other films this isn’t drawn out or over detailed. There aren’t really any action scenes either, but they weren’t missed because there was a story.  The climax is quite low key too, but fits perfectly with the rest of the film.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

SyncIpswich January Review: From Employee to Business Owner

I don’t get to SyncIpswich as often as I’d like. It’s a shame because they’re such a friendly crowd, especially when you consider I’m from across the border. Carl Farmer has been running SyncIpswich at the Eastern Enterprise Hub for ten months now and he’s doing an excellent job.

There were about 30 people there to hear Jason Firth. In my experience this is a good number for a January event. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the proximity to Christmas and the New Year, I don’t know, but people just don’t seem to like coming out in January or February. Tonight wasn’t helped by the fact the venue wasn’t ready and was locked up when Carl arrived. We could see the lack of lights as we walked across from the far side of the bay. It was rather disconcerting. However when we arrived we were directed to the bar to wait, where we roughed it.

It was clear from the moment he shook my hand and beamed that Jason Firth “wasn’t from round here.” Now living locally, he was at SyncIpswich to inspire, inform and entertain us with his story.

Jason decided to leave Sheffield in South Yorkshire and take up a position with a risk management consultancy firm who needed a Sharepoint expert. He knew he would be made redundant within two to three years and the notice came on Christmas Eve. He didn’t tell his wife until Boxing Day!

Jason faced redundancy with a little apprehension as up to this point he had been in a well paid, low stress job. By the end of his gardening leave he had formed Mindpoint, with a logo designed by his children and secured his first client. Since then he hasn’t looked back and work has come to him. Mindpoint have just secured a contract with Jaguar.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Knowing nothing about setting up a business, Jason was ripped of by about £1000 just to set up a company. He later found a local accountant, who was willing and able to provide the necessary flexibility, while they were both out walking their dogs. He received a lot of advice along they way from friends and from business coaches, a lot of which turned out to be bad advice. The one good thing to come out of speaking to a business coach was a recommendation for a book, The E Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. This led Jason on to read a lot of similar, very useful books.

Jason went on to tell us the thing every client must have: money. He never works for free and if a client cannot tell him what their budget is he just walks away. He even charges for the initial workshop with clients. It demonstrates how good he is. Always avoid the “Yorkshire Bargain hunters”, people who want something for nothing.

Mindpoint was so successful that after three years Jason had paid off his mortgage.

If you take nothing else from this, make sure you go away understanding that Jason is a successful businessman. My opinion is that his success is due to his own drive and strong focus. He knows what he wants and isn’t prepared to compromise. (Did I mention he was from Yorkshire?). Those of us who want to be successful in business can learn a lot from him.

Jason’s slides are available here.

Originally published on the Norfolk Tech Journal.

NorDev Review: Room 101 & More Than Just A UML ORM for .Net?

For this first time in its short history, Norfolk Developers used a different venue for its evening event. Fusion at the Forum is a great space for technical events with its wall to ceiling projector screens that wrap around most of one wall of the room. Why the change? Simply because we could and we wanted to see what it was like. And we loved it!

It’s difficult to determine the predominant programming language in Norwich. There’s some PHP, some JavaScript, some Ruby and some Java. There is also .Net, but we haven’t seen very much .Net at Norfolk Developers before tonight. Scott Price clearly know his stuff and is a very fluent, flowing and interesting speaker. He is obviously very passionate about the ECO Framework ORM and crammed a huge amount of material into thirty-five minutes. We suspect he only scratched the surface of his material.

In a twist to the much-loved panel format, Paul Grenyer hosted a Room 101 style competition, with the help of his beautiful “assistant”, Vickie Allen. (Assistant: noun, Person who does all the hard work.) Competing for fame, glory and the offer of a NorDev t-shirt, were:

  • Chris Holden, Unicycle rider, master of disguise, and incidentally Software Developer for Validus
  • Tim Stephenson, Photographer, Musician, and incidentally Head of IT for
  • Adam Wilson, Cartoonist, tech event addict and incidentally self employed PHP Developer at Spotted Paint

Items were offered to the audience for submission to Room 101 under three headings.

Round 1: Languages, Microsoft’s Classic ASP & VBScript were sent to Room 101 at the expense of Java and XML.

Round 2: Practices, Waterfall project management is no more, at the expense of “Emails without subjects” and, controversially, Pair-programming.

Round 3: Wildcard, wave goodbye to Non-Technical Managers but be warned – Arrogant Programmers and Microsoft’s Sharepoint are here to stay, at least for now.

Tim won the competition, with two of his choices making it into Room 101 – where they will presumably stay for all eternity, used to torture those who we suspect do not truly love NorDevCon. Classic ASP will be especially effective, development in which has long been considered a gross human rights violation. The loss of the waterfall methodology may well stymie the development of future spacecraft, though this is a price we are all very willing to pay. Even the dinosaurs, when faced with a choice – a waterfall project to build a rocket that could save their species, or near-certain extinction, faced their demise with pride. It’s just common sense.

Chris was the runner up, with an excellent addition to Room 101: The Non-Technical Manager. All Non-Technical Managers are now required to report to Room 101, to live out their days giving Classic ASP software development tasks using the Waterfall methodology to those who doubt NorDevCon. Did I mention that NorDevCon has a track devoted to local developers and issues affecting women in tech? I love NorDevCon. I’m sure you do too.

In my opinion, all runners-up should have been given prizes. As such, I hereby award Adam the prize for “Most Heartfelt Pleading” – despite none of his suggestions making it to Room 101, as he described his nightmarish experiences with subjectless emails, his pain was clearly mirrored on the faces of all attendees. Chris is hereby awarded “Best Paul Grenyer Lookalike & Impersonation”, a dubious honour that I am sure he will either cherish forever or deny vehemently, but which he has earned admirably.

In all, this was a highly entertaining format, one I hope we can repeat in the future – mainly because, I think we all agree: Java, XML and Sharepoint have long outstayed their welcome.

Words: Paul Grenyer & Matthew Bennet-Lovesey

Originally published on the Norfolk Tech Journal.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Norfolk Tech Journal Issue 04 Out Now!

So here we are nearly twelve months on from the hugely successful SyncConf, the first conference of its kind to be held in Norwich. The February Agile and tech conference baton has been passed from SyncNorwich to Norfolk Developers and now is Norfolk Developers’ time to shine and shine it will. In the pages of this issue of the Norfolk Tech journal you will find all the details of the Norfolk Developers Conference (NorDevCon), the Virgin Wines reception and the conference dinner. In terms of content it is already Norfolk’s biggest tech event. Now it just needs people like YOU to come along and enjoy what is guaranteed to be a fantastic day. You will also find details of how to buy a ticket.

You’re holding in your hands (or reading online, etc) the fourth issue of the Norfolk Tech Journal. I don’t remember when the idea for the Norfolk Tech Journal popped into my head. It will have been sometime in 2013, but I am not sure when. The first posts started going onto the website in late August and have continued at a rate of at least one new post every working day. That’s in the order of 21 posts a month (minimum). The contributors to the Norfolk Tech Journal have been very generous – thank you all!

The first and second PDF and printed journals were published in early November and early December respectively. The third one, a Rainbird and TechCrunch special was published in early January. The biggest problem is always deciding what not to include in the printed version to keep the printing costs down while we find advertisers to help pay for printing and production.

The NTJ has come a long way in a short period of time, but there is further to go. To really put Norfolk on the technology map we need more! More visits to the website. More downloads of the PDF journal. More recipients of the paper journal. More advertisers. More writers. More editors. More web publishers. More wordpress/PHP developers. A project manager would be very useful as well! If you would like to get involved in the Norfolk Tech Journal, please drop me an email to

As Darren Cook pointed out recently on google+, the NTJ has an extremely willing and able team behind it and it just would not have happened without: Akshata Javalirao, Beccy Johnson, Boydlee Pollentine, Cat Landin, Jane Chittenden, Julie Bishop, Mick Schonhut, Paul Sparkes, Robin Silcock, Scott Ranger, Sean Clark and Shelley Burrows (if I’ve forgotten you, rest assured your contribution is greatly appreciated!).

Extra special thanks go to Caroline Hargreaves, Dom Davis, Geraint Williams and Chris J. Bennett. The NTJ just wouldn’t have got this far without you.

The Norfolk Tech Journal is out now and can be downloaded for free here.

Workshop: Rails from scratch

What: NRUG: Workshop: Rails from scratch

When: Tuesday, 18th of February 2014 @ 7.15pm

Where: The Old Church, St Matthew's Road, Norwich, NR1 1SP


Our next meetup is scheduled for the 18th February, 7:15pm. We have a short workshop planned, which will be a very simple introduction to Rails aimed at beginner Rubyists. We'll be taking you through a typical Rails workflow and making an application for storing Gists (code snippets).

You'll need a laptop with Ruby installed (>= 1.9.3) if you'd like to code-along with the group. Some Ruby knowledge would be helpful, but it's not a requirement. The emphasis will be on helping beginners get started.

At the end of the workshop (which will last about an hour-and-a-half), you'll hopefully have a taste for Rails development. We will then retire to the pub to celebrate / commiserate.

The meeting will take place at Further's offices, on St Matthew's Road (off Riverside Road, near the train station)

Monday, 10 February 2014

NorDevCon Early Bird Ticket Sales End on Friday!

NorDevCon Early Bird Tickets at £75.00 will end on Friday 14th February. Discount codes (except STUDENT and UNEMPLOYED) and Conference Dinner Ticket sales will also end on Friday 14th February.

After this time, only Standard Conference Tickets at £200.00 will still be available.

Get your tickets now here: