What is the Cloud?

The “Cloud” means the same as “network(s)”.

Did someone just create a new word for something that we already had? Well yes they did. The latest trend in marketing for computer networks is to call any group of devices a “cloud“. Please note that when speaking about the “cloud“, it is implied that the “cloud” is on the internet, unless you use the term “private cloud“.

You can refer to the network connection between your one computer at home and your internet firewall a “private cloud“. Connect your iPhone or latest smartphone to your wireless network at home and it too has become part of your in-home “private cloud“. You open a web page and data is sent through your private cloud to your firewall, over your internet provider’s cloud to the private cloud of the web server hosting the site you are browsing to.

The internet itself a big cloud comprised of multiple clouds.  For example Facebook has a private cloud of servers that all connect to each other to perform backups and communicate to each other. They allow you, to connect to the website that is on these servers in their cloud.

What does this mean for business looking to move to the cloud?

Typically what business are looking for is to move their infrastructure out of their “private cloud” (their office’s local network) to a cloud provider’s network. The benefits to this can be higher up-time, better round the clock monitoring, reduced capital costs, faster access from remote locations, higher end (therefore more reliable) hardware, etc.

What are the common types of cloud services?

There are two main types of cloud hosting options for businesses. (Other less used services can be read about on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing.)

The first cloud hosting option we will mention is SaaS or “Software As A Service”.
This refers to “software” which can be any program, running as a service in the cloud. This has been around a long time in the form of email hosting, on-line games, on-line news sites and almost any other web-site you login to. Take Hotmail for example, it shows that the software (being your email client) is accessible via a web interface hosted somewhere else. Nothing needs to be installed on your computer other than a web browser. The service part of the name comes from the billing method, where you are billed like a utility service typically monthly based on usage (Hotmail is subsidized by advertising).

The next option we will talk about is IaaS or “Infrastructure As A Service”.
This refers to moving some of your companies existing servers (or “Infrastructure”) into the cloud. This option is usually chosen after eliminating SaaS as a possibility. You can migrate just pieces of you infrastructure (just a single or few servers) to the cloud, which is know as a “Hybrid Cloud” as the network still relies on your private cloud in addition to the infrastructure moved to the “hosted cloud“. Some business we have worked with have chosen to have their entire infrastructure moved to the cloud. With fully hosted infrastructures, existing computers become thin-clients that connect to a hosted terminal server in the cloud. If an existing computer stops working it can be replaced with an in-expensive thin-client based hardware rather than a full PC.

Let me know if you have any further questions about the cloud via the comments below.

You can review our “Services” section above for assistance we can provide planning or migrating your business to the cloud.

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Convert movies to the right format (QUICKLY)

It’s a constant struggle of mine to make sure everything plays properly in Windows Media Center.  Some times I get home movies from friends or I backup my movies in an incorrect format and now when I want to play them they never work.  There are many programs out there for converting movies to a correct format but most are complicated, slow and don’t do what they promise.  I recently tested Xilisoft Video Converter which seemed easy at first, however it didn’t work as expected and was very slow.  When I tried to convert a 60 minute video to an XBox 360 HD format it took almost 2 hours, it changed the video from 1080p to 720 and  converted the sound from 5.1 to 2 channels.  I tried to e-mail for help as the program was easy to use and very nice looking, however I got brushed off and told too bad, that is just the way it is.

I had later been introduced to an application called mkv2vob in the Entertainment 2.0 podcast.  This application looks like it was written for converting movies to play on the PS3, however it works like a dream for Media Center and XBox 360 extenders.  The first time I ran it I setup some settings on the “Configuration” tab.  I don’t remember what the defaults were I changed so I included a screen capture of what mine looks like.  The main settings were “Always Transcode DTS” (if the video has DTS sound then the XBox extenders will produce no audio) and “Video Transcoding: Automatic” (it will go through a long transcoding process only if absolutely necessary).  So once your “Configuration” page settings match mine here is how to convert your first movie…

a. On the “Add File” tab, choose “Browse” next to the “Source File” option and select the file that won’t play properly.
b. Choose “Browse” next to the “Destination Directory” and select where you would like the working file saved.
c. (optional) enable the “Delete source file after conversion” option. (I have not been using this option but I am going to start as every time I have used this application the new file is has always worked and worked better than the source.)
d. Click the “Add File” button and the conversion process is started.  In my experience the same file I tested using the previous program I had now takes only 2.5 minutes to convert.

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Podcasts

Doesn’t everyone hate the commute to work?

Well I have found my new favorite way to pass the time:  Podcasts.

Now when I first heard about Podcasts many years ago, I though of books on tape that some business guy loaded on his 2 Gb iPod and walked around with between subway stops in the city.  Well with most cars now equipped with USB ports and most cellphones having lots of memory my misconceptions are a thing of the past.  I can now listen to pre-recorded audio shows/programs while I drive to work on my radio or while I sit on a bus/train commute using my cell phone.

I drive a Mini Cooper S Clubman with the GPS entertainment system.  For listening in my car I just download the Podcast MP3’s and save them on a USB stick that I connect to the built-in jack.  As long as I don’t change the order of the songs on the USB stick it will automatically resume playing the Podcast where I turned off the car last.

My wife drives a Jeep Liberty with the Cassette/CD radio that has no USB input.  In order to get podcasts required some trickery.  First of was some sort of input.  Back when we had working iPods I purchased an aftermarket iPod dock that allowed me to connect in place of a satellite radio add-on.  Currently we have a Pioneer GPS that connects to the built-in speakers and allows USB or SD as an MP3 source.  If I had to do it again I would purchase a “A2DP to FM” adapter which allows almost all cellphones to use Bluetooth to send music to a radio station which the factory radio can pickup.

With the GPS in the Jeep Liberty it would restart the Podcasts from the beginning every time the vehicle was started.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if the Podcasts were the 2-5 minute length of a typical song but to fast forward 50 minutes into a Podcast can take a long time.  This is also a safety issue if you have to press or hold fast forward on the GPS for 10 minutes while driving (if that’s even legal).  So the hero app of this blog is a program called MP3DirectCut which lets you split an MP3 file into manageable chunks (5 minutes is my preference).

Most websites with Podcasts have a link to the direct MP3 (usually hover over the “listen now” link).  You can right-click on this link and save it to your USB drive.  This is how I started to listen to podcasts and seemed to be the easiest.  Since then I have started to use Microsoft Zune to automatically download the Podcasts so I don’t have to check on each individual website.  I am not going to cover using a phone (either iPhone or otherwise) as they have unique options to download podcasts directly or even play live though the internet while driving.  If you have a device with internet access through, you should defiantly do some research (here is a head start: BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Phone 7).

Here are the Podcasts I listen to regularly…
Engadget Classic
Engadget Mobile
Engadget HD
Entertainment 2.0
Missing Remote
The Digital Lifestyle
The Custom Integrator Show
The Digital Lifestyle Mobile
Pocket Lint

Nick Dorak

Customizing Windows Media Center look and feel

To make Windows Media Center really stand out and impress I needed to add some pizazz to the standard interface and make navigating easier.  My goal is that someone who has never used Windows Media Center should be able to pickup the remote control and get to whatever they need without my instruction on how to do so.  In a previous blog I wrote about some add-in to get this done.  Here I will add some more details for some of these apps (assuming you have already installed them)…

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Step 1 – Setting up Media Browser

First thing we need to do is get organized.  Once everything is setup neatly the rest will fall into place smoothly.  I use Media Browser to manage my saved TV and Movie collection and with it being able to integrate in so many customizable ways I find myself always impressed with this program.  Here is how I have setup my media (in the “media” tab of Configurator)…

HD Movies – M:\Media\HD Movies & M:\Media\Kids HD Movies
All Movies – M:\Media\Movies & M:\Media\Kids Movies & M:\Media\HD Movies & M:\Media\Kids HD Movies
Movies by Genre – M:\Media\Movies & M:\Media\Kids Movies & M:\Media\HD Movies & M:\Media\Kids HD Movies
Television – K:\Media\Television
Kids Movies – M:\Media\Kids HD Movies & M:\Media\Kids Movies
Music Videos – K:\ Media\Music Videos

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Step 2 – Download some nice icons

A user by the name of Xzener makes some really cool looking icons.  I use the “Xzener’s Media Browser Icons” for the main Windows Media Center navigation then I use the “V2” ones within Media Browser.  There are many articles on-line for customizing Media Browser so I will not go into too much detail here, however to get simple Genre folders setup here are some steps…

a. From the downloaded Xzener’s V2 icons select the one you like for the specific genre (some have multiple icons) then right click on it and choose “Copy”.
b. Browse to “C:\ProgramData\MediaBrowser\ImagesByName\Genre” on your hard drive (create it if it doesn’t exist) the create a folder here with the name of the genre (ie: Action)
c. Open this new folder, right click then choose “Paste”.  This will put a copy of the icon from step a here.
d. Rename the icon to “folder.png” (note: if the original file doesn’t have “.png” at the end of the name then you don’t have to add it)
e. Next time you launch Media Browser and choose to sort by Genre these new icons should appear (Media Browser will remember what your folder was last sorted by).

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Step 3 – Changing the background

I think that this is the most important step.  Everyone should have a background that reflects their personality and makes their home theatre experience unique.  When guest come over and see your Media Center they should say “wow, mine doesn’t look like that“.  With Media Center Studio you can specify with just a new background or an entire theme for Windows Media Center.  The largest collection of pre-made themes I can find has been at the www.Hack7MC.com site.   My favourite is Jakewill’s Dark7MC theme.  Here are some basic steps to change the background…

a. In Media Center Studio double click on “New” and it will open a new tab to begin setting up your theme.
b. Change the name to something more memorable.
c. Expand “Images” – “Common” – “Background” on the left then for both “COMMON.ANIMATED.BACKGROUND.PNG and COMMON.BACKGROUND.PNG choose “Browse…” and select the background art you prefer.
d. Choose “Save” at the top
e. On the “Themes” tab at the top, choose the newly created theme as you named in step b. 
f. In the ribbon bar at the top choose “Themes” beside “Home” then select “Apply”

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Step 4 – Custom Entry Points

I should have called this the “putting it all together” step.  Now that Windows Media Center looks great, we need to make it easy to use.  When people come over and pickup my remote, I shouldn’t have to tell them that to watch TV you have pass the TV folder and go to Media Browser then go to Television.  If they see TV they should be able to go there.  This requires both Media Browser to be setup properly and Media Center Studio to be customized with “custom entry points”.  Here is how to set it up…

a. Within Media Center Studio, open the “Start Menu” tab.
b. At the very bottom of the window there is a bar that reads “Entry points”, click on it to expand it.
c. If you scroll down you will see all of the media browser groups you created in Step 1 above.  Double click on one of them to change it’s icon (I use the icons from Step 2 but I manually make one Black & White for the “Inactive image”.  For now both images can be in colour.)
d. Click “Save” once you have the icon looking how you want and then return to the “Start Menu” tab.
e. Click and drag your icon from the “Entry points” in the bottom to the preview window above.  When you drag the icon you will need to aim your mouse specifically over the green “+” that appear otherwise it will not place the shortcut there. (There are some headings listed twice, and since I don’t know which is which, I make the same changes in both of them.)
f. Once I have put the entry points where I prefer I usually move some other options around (I move the main “Media Browser” under Extras and add a “Media Browser Config” shortcut to the “Tasks” group.)
g. We can now uncheck (or delete) any groups we no longer need to display
h. The last thing I try and do in this application is to click on a shortcut in each group which makes it the default when scrolling to the group.  Also, the last group selected will be the default when Media Center is launched.
i. Once you are done click the “Save” button to commit all of the changes which will cause Windows Media Center to restart and have all your changes displayed.

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Windows Mobile Apps

I still use Windows Mobile 6.5 on my phone.  I have found that Windows Mobile was the best option at the last time my contract renewed.  I had eliminated iPhone due to the lack of keyboard, and Android at the time didn’t have any Microsoft Exchange synchronization.  To keep up with of the iPhone/Android options I have found all the apps I need but they required a little more than just a trip to the apps store…

Microsoft MyPhone
This is the must have first installed app for all Windows Mobile devices.  The program backs up your data to your Live account and provides GPS tracking to find a lost or stolen phone.  It is available through the Windows Market Place app.
http://mp.windowsphone.com/

Home Screen Customizer
I use the built-in WM6 “Titanium” style home screen as it is visually appealing and everything else I have tried always causes issues.  This being said, the Home Screen Customizer allows me to add, remove and customize the order of the options on the screen.
http://homescreencustomizer.spaces.live.com/

Titanium Weather
How is any cool gadget complete without the basic weather app.  This one goes right in to the “Titanium” home screen I have and displays the weather for my area including pictures.  What else could I want?
http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=487090

Favorite People
Another add-on for my “Titanium” home screen.  This one allows me to add a select few contacts with pictures so that I can dial them from the home screen without having to search through contacts.  Other themes make use of the contacts tagged here as well.
http://www.1800pocketpc.com/2010/01/18/appstar-wm6-5-favorite-people-favorite-contacts-on-titanium-screen.html

Pocket Twit
Well I just started to get in to “Tweeting” so I may have to post about this more as I go.  By for now I mainly consume Tweets and this seems to do a good job at that.  Plus it gets a point for integrating in the “Titanium” home screen.
http://code.google.com/p/pocketwit/

YouTube
There isn’t any browser flash support in Windows Mobile (sounds familiar iPhone/iPad users?).  In order to be able to play YouTube videos on the go there is a need for this local application.  I believe it was written by YouTube at some point in time but had become abandoned.  I can’t really find who made this or if it’s legit or anything as I would like to reference it.  Anyway, it works well for me.
http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=747967

Facebook
Well, if you’re a Facebook junkie this is likely more up your alley than mine, but for the occasional Facebook use I do this seemed like an easier way to get there than a web browser.  It is available through the Windows Market Place app.
http://mp.windowsphone.com/

Watchflag
The notifications available within Windows Mobile is limited to “all e-mails”.  This application allows customizing notifications based on subject, sender or time of day.
http://www.watchflag.com/

Shazam
This is one of those apps that you never need until you wish you had it already installed.  Shazam will use the microphone on the phone to listen to music and then figure out the title and artist of the song.  This is awesome for hearing a song on the radio and having it in a list to download when I get home.  It has become harder to find uses since the banning of cell phones while driving.
http://mp.windowsphone.com/

xdaShutdown
I put my phone through a lot of work and rebooting is a common occurrence.  For some reason I haven’t found a shutdown or reboot button in Windows Mobile.  This app fills that gap and is “skin-able” to match any installed themes.
http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=544016

Google Mobile Maps
Everyone needs Google Mobile Maps at some point.  Just get it installed and try it out.  Great always up to date GPS utility and searching.
http://www.google.com/gmm

For the geeks (I have them all)…
MobileVT – Think of it as Telnet for WM
WiFiFoFum – A wireless network signal strength meter
Srego CE Toolpack – Provides a CMD shell for WM
Token2Shell – Another Telnet/SSH shell
VxUtil – Ping, DNS Lookup, SubNet calculator and more

Most of my findings have been found through the XDA Developers site if you would like to read more or find something for your specific needs…
http://www.xda-developers.com/

Nick Dorak

Types of TV Tuners

There are different types of sources for tuners and it took me a while to decipher which I need, plus more importantly, information specific to where I live.  Here is what I have found (keep in mind I live in the Toronto area in Ontario Canada)…
http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows7/TV-signals-that-are-supported-by-Windows-Media-Center

NTSC
This is the old analog cable that everyone can pickup using the old “rabbit-ear” antennas on grandpa’s first TV.  This is also the standard definition signal we get when connect our TV directly to the cable provider.  This has been phased out in the US as of June 2009, however there are still many channels available both over the air and through cable providers in Canada.  NTSC is scheduled to be abandoned in Canada in August 2011.  These are the typical channels I remember as a kid like 3 (Global), 7 (CityTV), 29 (Fox), etc.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NTSC

ATSC
This is pretty much the HD version of NTSC.  It isn’t used by any cable providers that I know of, however it is broadcasted freely through the air.  I purchased a cheap $20 antenna, connected it directly to the TV and pointed it out my bedroom window then was instantly picking up free HD channels. I have since upgraded to a $90 antenna, and mounted it on a pole on the side of my house.  At last check I am getting over 20 HD channels through this antenna.  At my last house (only a block away) I had the antenna mounted in the attic and was getting about 18 HD channels.   These channels are represented with a decimal (usually lower than 60 from what I have found) like 41.1 (Global), 9.1 (CityTV), 29.1 (Fox),  etc.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ATSC_(standards)
To see what kinds of signals you can get from your area I highly recommend checking this site…
http://www.tvfool.com/

QAM
This is the equivalent to ATSC for cable providers.  This comes in either “Clear QAM” or “Encrypted QAM” options from the cable provider.  The “Encrypted QAM” channels require the use of a cable box rented or purchased from the cable company.  The “Clear QAM” is more like the channels from old NTSC but can be received without the need of a cable box.  It is hit and miss if your cable provider has any channels in “Clear QAM” as none of the Canadian providers have any information on their websites and the customer service people have never heard of it.  Even with every channel being able to have HD, the cable providers still broadcast mostly old SD (standard definition). You can usually determine the number of available “Clear QAM” channels available by connecting the cable directly to your TV (without a rented box) and doing an ATSC channel scan.  I know Rogers almost only broadcasts their Galaxy Music channels over “Clear QAM” whereas Cogeco also includes several basic cable package channels.  At last check I was getting about 50 “Clear QAM” channels at my house (not including the tonne of music channels).  These channels also come in with a decimal (but are typically higher that those of ATSC) like 81.3 (Global), 81.7 (CityTV), 81.24 (Fox), etc.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atsc_(standards)
From my experience (I haven’t been able to find anything in writing) but it apears that all tuners that have ATSC also support “Clear QAM” and visa-vera.

Other Areas (not available to me)…
Cable Card
This is an American only option that allows “Encrypted QAM” to be used by renting a PCMCIA style card from the cable provider then using the tuner (or digital box) of your choice.  I guess in other parts of the world the cable companies pay the salaries of employees to the regulatory bodies (CRTC here in Canada) which then force us to use the garbage digital boxes only available through the cable company which they can then make more money on (excuse my bitter rant).  Anyway, I recently discovered that these tuners without the card from the cable company will still work with ATSC and “Clear QAM”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cablecard
DVB
There are different flavours of this standard which are available in Europe.  I am not to knowledgeable on them however one should be aware that they exist and are not compatible with other standards.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Video_Broadcasting
ISDB

This is yet another standard available in Japan & Latin America of which again is not compatible with other standards.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISDB

I hope this clarifies any questions with my post regarding Tuners for Windows Media Center.

Nick Dorak

Tuners for Media Center

The best feature Windows Media Center has going for it is the ability to add tuners and use it as a PVR.  Once I have a show recorded I can pause and resume watching it from any TV in my house.  With the recording being performed on my computer the only limit to the amount of recordings is the size of hard drives I want to spring the cash for.

The tuner that most excites me was the Silicon Dust HDHomeRun as it can be connected to the network and has many advantages over tuners that have to be installed into the computer.  After some closer examination I have had to eliminate it as it only has ATSC and QAM support but was missing NTSC.  In Canada we still have many NTSC broadcast channels that haven’t been replaced by ATSC yet.

Next on the list was the Hauppauge HVR-2250 which has a dual ATSC/QAM/NTSC tuner.  This is refered to as a Hybrid tuner as it can change between either Digital (ATSC/QAM) and Analog (NTSC) signals.  It also has 2 of these Hybrid tuners built-in so TV can be recorded on one while watched on the other or 2 different shows can be watched at the same time.

I have tried other tuner cards before by ATI and ASUS but they always ended up with issues (albeit on older versions of Media Center).  I can’t recommend to my friends often enough not to purchase an AMD/ATI product as their products have proven to me to be the most problematic and difficult to support in the years I have been using them.  In the past I found the Hauppauge cards had less issues and their cards seemed to be supported for longer periods of time.  AverMedia cards were popular on-line with other users of Media Center, however I had never used any of their products and didn’t know anyone who had so they missed the short-list.

The only other option I have been able to find for content available in content is the Hauppauge HD-PVR.  This connects to your computer using USB and then to a digital cable box using the component out & optical cables.  Now some of my friends who are serious about HD have told me that they would prefer to use the HDMI cable.  The thing I remind them is that the HDMI signal from the box is only 1080i and the component cables will send a 1080i signal so they aren’t loosing any quality.

As I don’t have a cable box and I really wanted the NTSC signals (at least until the broadcast ends in August 2011), I ended up going with the Hauppauge HVR-2250 card.  I installed one at first to play with for a month or two and make sure it was what I needed.  Eventually I ended up purchasing 2 of these, one to attach to my ATSC/NTSC antenna and the other to my QAM/NTSC connection from my cable provider.  because I work for a computer reseller, I got the OEM models that didn’t include a remote.  When my friend was purchasing the same card I got him to order two with remotes (one for him and one I bought off him for myself).  I wish I had got both of my cards with remotes as I found out after the fact that they work perfectly with the XBox 360.

Connecting the cards was easy and once the drivers were installed tuning my first TV channel was easy as pie.  There was a little trickery involved to get some more advanced stuff.  First off, according to Microsoft, there is no QAM in Canada.  The next issue was that I can receive ATSC signal from the US, however media center will only download guide data for one region at a time.  My quickly found hero Peter Near figured his way around both of these issues and has shared this information for all who need…
http://thegreenbutton.com/blogs/pnear/archive/2009/08/10/enabling-atsc-amp-qam-in-canada-for-windows-7-rtm.aspx

In the future I figure that I will end up replacing my Hauppauge tuners with the network tuners from Silicon Dust once I no longer need NTSC.  These will work better with some of the upcoming Windows Media Center Embedded devices, especially when trying to share the signal between multiple PC.

Nick Dorak