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March 30, 2010

Living in My Cloud

This weekend, I did something really cool (for me). I got to watch a March Madness game on my TV that CBS wasn’t showing in my local market on my TV, without paying the cable company. Life is full of short victories, and this is one of mine. More importantly, I realized I’m living in the heavenly jukebox I used to talk about in my presentations years ago.

I’ve been actively building my cloud for the last six months, but I’ve been building towards this for the last ten years. The caveat is that the way I’ve built this setup works for me, and one-size definitely doesn’t fit all. I’m lucky to have the resources to build my cloud, and I know most people won’t go to these lengths to get more media. It should all be easier and work better than it does in 2010, but there’s no one really great solution yet (that I know of).

Why a cloud?

It started last August when I decided it was time to investigate a centralized backup solution, a way to listen to our music collection from anywhere, and the ability to listen to different music in different rooms of the house. In my ideal world, I also wanted similar access for video, a way to easily watch internet video (eg, YouTube, Hulu) on my TV, and the ability to stream Netflix to my TV. The offsite storage is important to me (I used to backup to Mozy, but I also want to own my data, and the idea of replicating sensitive documents on servers owned by companies focused on the bottom line (Dropbox, Microsoft Live, etc.) wasn’t very appealing to me.

I did a lot of research and couldn’t find anything that let me do everything, but Windows Home Server software came close, so I purchased an HP Mediasmart EX485 server. As the name implies, the Mediasmart series is designed to give consumers access to their media from anywhere. It comes with Windows Home Server software pre-installed and out of the box, it’s supposed to do the following things:

  • Backup all of the computers on your network automatically on a schedule you set. This includes differential backups and restores.
  • Periodically grab media from all of those computers and copy it to the server.
  • Maintain your router and DNS settings so that your server is accessible from outside of your network.
  • Give you access to all of your documents, files, music, and video from anywhere.

I say “supposedly,” because I’ve never been able to get the media collector to work consistently, and the interface to the music collection is under-described by the term “sucks.” I had to rip most of my CDs for the first time at a higher bitrate, so I just ended up copying files to the server manually in big chunks. I’m also the main person in the house who purchases music, so I can maintain that routine pretty easily.

My Jukebox in the Cloud (so named by Deanna)

The interface problems and lack of functionality were bigger issues, though. For example, there’s no way to get details about songs, rate them, or create playlists, all of which is pretty unforgivable in a product designed specifically for consumers. After further research, I installed Orb, which is some pretty cool, free software that does a big piece of what Windows Home Server does. It gives you remote access to files, music, pictures, and video on the computer where it’s installed, plus you can manage internet radio stations, favorite songs, rate songs, create playlists, and create a dashboard view. Did I mention it’s free? If you have a computer you always leave on, you can emulate some of my setup for free using this software.


My music library in Orb

Where Windows Home Server beats Orb is in its ability to update port forwarding on the router automatically, backup all of the computers on your network, and offer a RAID solution for that storage. I have 400GB+ of files, music, pictures, and video on one 750GB drive, but I was able to drop in a second drive, and the software automatically started mirroring files to it for redundancy. That part was pretty amazing, and I can access all of those files remotely, whether that means at work or in different rooms in the house. Pretty sweet.

Connecting the server to the home system

That was all well and good, but I also wanted to play music without having to queue it up on a laptop first, which meant we needed a way to get the server content to play through the home theater system. Plus, we wanted to start streaming Netflix videos to watch on the TV, as opposed to our computers. I again started doing research, which led me to the discovery that the Xbox 360 that was just sitting on the shelf (we play more Wii than Xbox) was actually a solution waiting for us to recognize it.

Because the server and Xbox are both Microsoft products, they talk to each other pretty easily. This opened up a whole new world for us, because now we could show any picture and play any music or video from the server on the big HDTV and the sound through the audio receiver and 5.1 surround-sound system without the need for a computer in between. In addition, the Xbox gives us that desired access to Netflix, Pandora, and even Last.FM through the existing system. I can also create my playlists in Orb via a web browser and play them through the Xbox. More sweetness.


Watching “Battlestar Galactica” via Netflix’s streaming service through the Xbox on the HDTV

My biggest complaint about this setup is that the Xbox isn’t designed to be a media center, even though it has all of that functionality built into it. This means the interface isn’t very good here, either (no playlists, incomplete display of metadata, long lists to scroll through), but I didn’t have to buy any additional equipment, so that was a big plus. If Microsoft ever decides to spend time working on interfaces, it would have some killer products for the consumer market.

More video

This setup does almost everything on my original list, but I still wanted to be able to watch Hulu through the existing system, and I didn’t want to have to manually download YouTube videos to watch them on the TV. Looking around, I came across the amazing PlayOn software ($40), which was the final piece of our puzzle. By loading this software on the server, we gained the ability to watch Hulu, YouTube, and some custom PlayOn channels for The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and NCAA March Madness games on demand. Really sweet! This piece was a little bit more difficult, but it all works if you follow the instructions.


Picking an episode of “Modern Family” to watch from Hulu via PlayOn through the Xbox to the HDTV

Making it all easier to use

I then tied everything together with a hand-me-down Logitech Harmony remote to make it easy to manage all of the various pieces. The “watch TV” button turns on the TV to the right input, the audio receiver to the right input, and controls the cable box. The “watch a movie” button turns everything on with the right settings to watch a DVD, but pretty much everything else except the Wii runs through the “listen to music” button, because that’s what starts up the Xbox. This is especially helpful because without the universal remote, I’d probably be the only one in the house who’d be able to turn things on and off for different activities. Another big plus is that we can control the Xbox with easy-to-understand buttons, rather the game controller that came with the console. I can’t recommend a Logitech univeral remote highly enough.

Conclusion

For the most part, this is all working very well for us. We listen to our music a lot more, including at work, and sometimes the internet video piece really comes in handy (like during March Madness). We especially like streaming Netflix (which can also be done through the PlayOn software if you don’t have an Xbox). At this point, the biggest issue is that I still need a way to backup the server offsite, but I can’t find a reasonably priced service for this (most companies charge business-level prices because they haven’t yet recognized there’s a growing consumer market). Someone’s going to make a killing offering a consumer backup service for media, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. I’m looking at other workarounds right now, but I haven’t found an ideal solution. (Have you? Leave a comment!)

It’s been a long road to get to this point, but it’s exciting to have all of this geeky functionality working. In the future, I hope to get rid of a lot of paper by scanning it to the server, and I may investigate adding a TV tuner to record programs directly to the server and setting up printing over the internet to our home printer.

How you can do some of this

This is pretty geeky stuff, although most of the process was easier than I thought it would be. It’s also a Microsoft-centric approach, somewhat by accident. I still think Microsoft needs to do a better job with its interfaces before its home server/media center products could go mainstream. However, there are ways to do pieces of all of this easily, without Microsoft products, and sometimes even for free.

  • If you have a computer that you leave on all the time, you can stream music and video or access files from it for free by installing Orb. You can even hook up an external drive to that computer if you need more storage. (It works on Macs, too.)
  • If you have an old computer lying around or can pick one up cheap, you can purchase Windows Home Server for $99 and convert that machine into a home server. I only paid the $500 for the HP Mediasmart server for the convenience factor of having it pre-installed with the software and a 750GB hard drive. If I’d had more time, I might have built it myself.
  • You don’t need an Xbox to get content from the server to the TV/home theater system. Internet TVs and DVD players are on the market (everything will have access to the internet built-in eventually), and there’s middleware like the Roku. Because I was able to get the Xbox working in about 10 minutes, I didn’t investigate which of the other options might be best. Interestingly, TiVO is entering this market with its new TiVO Premiere box, but it’ll still require a monthly fee, which I wasn’t willing to pay. I don’t think it provides access to the user’s collection, although it does bring in all of that internet content.
  • There are also other ways to stream sites like Hulu and Netflix to your TV. You can install the PlayOn software on a regular computer (as opposed to a server) to watch those channels, but you’ll still need the middleware to get the stream to the TV. Of course, you can also just install PlayOn on a computer and watch the channels on that computer, or hook it up to a TV using an A/V cable. That’s what I used to do, but I wanted to be able to use my laptop while watching “TV.” Note that PlayOn will also work with a Nintendo Wii or Playstation 3.
  • Jason Griffey has written about using the Drobo system for backups. I probably would have gone this route if I didn’t also want the remote access to my media files. However, if you’re looking strictly for a backup solution or if you aren’t backup up your data, this is an excellent option.

What else have you tried? How are you building your cloud?


6:54 am Comments (6)

April 30, 2009

The Library as Universe

Of course it’s the Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark. Pretty cool stuff. I especially like the line about making the library about what the youth need from libraries, rather than what libraries need from youth. [Thanks, Heather!]

Mindspot the Movie: The Library as Universe


10:55 am Comments (3)

March 5, 2009

PCMA Presentation: Embracing Free Technology in a Global Recession

Today I was part of a panel session about Web 2.0 tools for the GMC/PCMA

Greg Fine – Association Forum

showed some of their Association Professionals throughout History video
showed the map of online communities from 2007 (“gulf of youtube”)
social media is about building community, and Greg likes this visual because it shows there are actual places and you can’t just aimlessly wander around
– it lets you leverage existing networks
– it allows us to easily create and share information with one another (as associations, we’re about associating)
– allows this to happen in an instantaneous way
– on a platform that people are comfortable with
so if we as organizations leverage these platforms, we make it easier for our members to find us and interact with us
– it allows you to evangelize your members and your customers

there are generational distinctions – generally accepted distinctions
uses acceptable footwear for men on day one of their new job as way to distinguish between them
greatest generation – wingtips
Xers – black lace-up, but moved to the boat shoe
Millennials/GenY – tennis shoes
Gamers – flip-flops
can’t talk to a flip-flop from a wingtip perspective
even the tennis show crowd may not totally get the flip-flop one
also have the 80-20-1 rule
80% of people who are on the internet only look/lurk and don’t engage
20% of the 80% actively engage (read RSS, have a Facebook page)
1% of that 20% are active users of social media online (blog, post to Wikipedia, etc.)
EXCEPT for the gamers, where the numbers are reversed
only 1% are not active online, etc.

the #1 rule is that the organization totally loses control in this environment
if someone wants to say something bad about you, they don’t need your site/platform to do it
so embrace it
do you use free or proprietary and build your own?
Greg is a big believer in free
– free
– proprietary usually means separate authentication scheme and people have password fatigue now
– do you have an open or closed system (can anyone be a member or is it a member benefit)

Association Forum makes everything open because if you care enough to join, maybe you’ll eventually become a member
there’s no right or wrong, but you need to be deliberate about what you’re going to do

set reasonable expectations
mentioned a case where a group thought they’d failed because they only had 1,200 people on their Facebook page
but they only had 10,000 members total!

you cannot think like you – you have to think like your audience
just because you don’t use it doesn’t mean others shouldn’t
others may create these sites (like a Facebook page) for you if you don’t do it
you have to integrate it with traditional methods
you don’t just do one thing in isolation – f2f, email newsletters, etc. are still valid
taken all together, it makes it all more valuable

it’s like a football experience – it’s the future of the association experience
the audience in the stadium are the members, who paid admission
within that audience are different levels (box seats versus bleachers)
over time, our experiences inside the stadium may be more valuable than just being a member

some tools:
– Facebook
– Forum Effect (blogging)

Flickr – an online picture sharing site that lets you tag images
showed pictures tagged with ASAE
user-generated content (pictures from attendees)
everybody has a cell phone these days, and these phones have cameras
35,000 pictures were posted from a conference when they asked people to take a few and then they had a download station

YouTube – videos
when someone comes in to present now, they do a “5 questions with xxxx speaker” video
total time investment per video is one hour, including the interview
they also allow the person to use the video, too

LinkedIn and Facebook
don’t upload your member list to a third-party site to require people who join are members, because this is a violation of your members’ privacy
let anyone become a member on your page
takes five minutes to set this stuff up

strategy is important!
when you’re thinking about all of this
Association Forum uses these sites as guideposts to help people get to the Forum website

Brad Lewis – Professional Convention Management Association

“luxury expenditures” – travel
is in the media countering these negative perceptions and the distinctions between legitimate travel and these types of excesses

PCMA uses:
– Facebook
– Flickr
– LinkedIn
– blog on TypePad
– YouTube

goals for PCMA:
– want to be where their members are
– need to participate in the current technologies
– facilitate connections
– create member engagement, retention
– brand experience; how can your members interact with you?
– enhanced exposure for events, programs, products, and services
– create added value
– learn something new every day

their most successful site is LinkedIn
recommend to their chapters that they create sites, too
you do lose some control

PCMA has 6,000 members and more than 1,000 have joined the LinkedIn group
PCMA posts new content there and posts event news
no hard sells there
eases people into participation in the organization
present jobs, speaker info
most of the room was already on LinkedIn
from an association standpoint, your members can already do a multitude of things there (and on these other sites)
one sign-on
try to make your name the sign across platforms
want the full name and the acronym because you don’t know what people will search on

monitoring and control:
– wild west; just need to accept that because you can’t prevent it
– PCMA does delete some stuff like direct sales solicitations
– does take a staff commitment, regardless of which department is assigned to monitor
– think about how you’re fostering and feeding the community, too; that’s why you want to choose which sites are best for you and your members

PCMA doesn’t mind when people say a session was horrible, because it gives them feedback

take action:
– work with marketing to create a group, work with membership to update it
– if you’re not monitoring what’s happening, your competition probably is
– monitor for referral requests (“who knows of a good xxxx company?”), even if you don’t answer back
Brad encourages third party responses

what it’s for:
– networking with colleagues
– get updates
– ask questions
– gain insights
– share ideas

what it’s not for:
– soliciting (it’s like using the wrong fork at dinner)
– direct promotion

average age of a PCMA member is 47
one of the young kids at a table didn’t know what LinkedIn was – “facebook for old people”

Facebook
– target market segmentation
– students (announce scholarships, internships, communication with PCMA student staff)
– create event
– discussion boards (students were voluntarily making recommendations to others about joining PCMA)

Flickr
– annual meeting (linked from communications, photos for dailies, member engagement even if they can’t attend)
– social networking centered around photos
– share photos within groups and tags

TypePad blog
– new PCMA Chairman John Folks’ blog
– puts face on leadership
– way for leadership to connect with members and get feedback
– start conversations among colleagues

YouTube
– PCMA has a YouTube channel
– some leadership hasn’t wanted to be on YouTube
– only have a few select videos but it’s a good way to put a face on the organization and tell stories

proprietary systems
– PCMA did purchase an expensive product for “PCMA Connect”
– can trial on free before you try proprietary
– had bells and whistles but was a separate destination

Learnings
– conversation happens organically
– hot topics are anonymity, reluctance to speak your mind, general best has been more social (New Year’s resolutions)
be relevant to the people who connect with you

philosophies and conclusions
– your member profile will determine which platform works best for you
– leadership acceptance, need some buy-in
– certainly trial this stuff
these are just new assets in the arsenal, and they’re even free
– important to engage in relevant business of today

Jenny Levine (me)

here are my slides (12MB, PDF)


10:19 pm Comments Off on PCMA Presentation: Embracing Free Technology in a Global Recession