Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Backup? What backup?

You all take regular backups of the critical data on your computers, don't you? And backups of your entire hard drive? But do they work? A wise sage once said "Your backups are only as good as your last restore", and that's probably right.

Over the years I've heard a whole host of horror stories about the subject, some pretty ancient. There was a colleague who visited a local office where there was a problem and who asked for the disk copies - and was given a folder containing photocopies of their data floppy disks! (This was obviously a few years back in the days of 5.25 inch floppies) - fair play to the office staff, no one had explained what was needed. Someone had just installed this amazing new bit of kit, shown them how to use it, and then said "Don't forget to copy the disks every day" - and as far as they were concerned copies were made on the photocopier.

And there was another colleague (same sort of era) who discovered that the backup floppies (real floppy disks this time) were kept safely where everyone could find them - clamped to the side of a filing cabinet with a large magnet!

And some years ago in the Green Party office when the computer died, and someone asked for the backup. No problem, sitting in the filing cabinet, taken the previous afternoon. All was well - luckily - as yesterday was the first backup they had made in six months!

And the office in a large insurance company in the early days of IBM PCs, before networks, where PCs were stand alone, and they had installed a tape cartridge unit and software on the PC for daily backups - which they did. And one day the engineer was looking at something and discovered the cartridge drive door was covered in cobwebs - they'd been backing up onto the same cartridge daily for the previous year - and those cartridges had a recommended lifespan of 20 uses.

Of course we're much more sensible these days - aren't we?

Personally I'm paranoid when it comes to data backups. I look at a long list of scenarios and try and have a setup that can cope with (almost) all of theml:

1) Hard disk crashes
2) File gets overwritten
3) Office burns down
4) Burglar nicks computers from office
5) Computer gets lost
6) Global warming floods Taliesin
7) Meteorite hits Taliesin

As a result, my backup strategy has several strands. I have software on my main computer that automatically runs schedules backups. The entire hard disk is backed up weekly, and my data directories daily. I keep daily backups for several months, and occasional ones before then. The backups are written to a Network Storage Device in another building.

From time to time I mount one of the backup files to check it works - I haven't dared to run a full restore though! But I'm thinking of upgrading the hard drive on my laptop, so that may be an opportunity to try it out...

This setup can cope with (1) - the full disk backup should allow a straightforward restore to a new drive using a restore boot CD.
(2) - the daily data file backups mean I can go back to the state of every individual file, every day for the last couple of months
(3) - the backups are in a different building
(4) - ditto - it's embarassing if your backup is on a bit of kit next to the computer which the burglar also nicks.
(5) - buy a new computer and restore from the full disk image
(6) - hopefully I'll have time to escape clutching critical kit
(7) - if I'm at home at the time, I'm past caring. If I'm not, there is a weakness which I'll be addressing soon. I have a couple of large, cheap USB hard drives, and I'm going to do a monthly manual copy of the entire system and store it at the house of a colleague who lives 20 miles away. We'll meet up monthly and swap copies - I'll be doing the same for him.

Overkill? Maybe, but I don't think so. For a business that relies on data stored in electronic form, the security of that data is absolutely essential. Lose the data and you lose the business.

And what about individuals and their home computers? And websites? I'll discuss those later...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The joy of fonts

Amongst the many woes of the professional web developer has been the difficulty of explaining to clients, particularly those who have experience of preparing work for print, that a) web pages are not all the same size, b) web browsers sometimes do things differently and c) you can't use that nice Papyrus font that you've got on your computer (except in images)

The first two are still an issue, and in fact have got messier thanks to the rapid rise of mobile internet and the viewing of websites on some very 'odd' devices.

The third has got a lot better since Google released their webfonts. For those who don't know about them, the google webfonts are a very large collection of fonts that can be safely used on web pages (with a bit of extra coding - which Google provide). The code and fonts work on all modern browsers. No more are we stuck with the same old half-dozen slightly boring (if very readable) fonts.

To be fair, a lot of the available fonts are a bit iffy, but there are a nice selection that can be used for body text as well as wierd headings.

Our first attempt at using them was for a new site for Robin Huw Bowen, the world's leading player of the Welsh Triple Harp. Here we wanted something a bit more 'relaxed' for the menu text, and settled on the delightfully named 'Swanky and Moo Moo'

We also developed some interesting code for use in our Content Management System for when someone really, really needs a specific font. The code allows users to enter headings into the CMS as normal text but the system then generates an image of the text in the fancy font on the fly, and inserts it into the page (with appropriate alt text etc.) Quite handy.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

SEO - a bit of a black art

Sometimes it's tricky to explain to customers that the hardest part of developing a website is getting a good position on the search engines. Some expect us to wave a magic wand and suddenly their site will be "top in google" - regardless of the search term!

Of course, sometimes it's easy: if the client is an Aardvark breeder in Dolgellau and wants to be number one for searches for 'pet aardvark dolgellau' it's a doddle. For others in a more crowded market it requires a little more skill.

But with some diligent work, and careful understanding of how we develop the site content, and structure, and a few little tricks we have up our sleeve, we can often get some very effective results. For instance, one of our customers is Mark Derby, an incredibly talented mechanic, who runs RS911 Porsche Restoration from a site in the hills near Llanidloes in mid-Wales. But if you Google (or bing) 'porsche restoration' from the UK guess who is no. 1 -

Recently I've been working in conjunction with Chris Gibson of mach2media to do some work on the website of a rather lovely Guest House/B & B called Brynarth which is a few miles outside Aberystwyth. In addition to the fact that there are a lot of B&Bs around here, part of the difficulty is that they are NEAR Aberystwyth not IN Aberystwyth, and this now seems to be important for Google, so we've been doing a bit of fine tuning to see what we can manage. It'll take a few days for the changes to take effect and we'll then see how effective they were.

Brynarth is an interesting client. Chris and I first worked together to build a website for them back in 2003. Since then the business has changed hands twice, and each time we have been asked to stay on and redevelop the site for the new owners, which just shows the importance of building up a good relationship with clients. We want to work with our clients in the long term, not just deliver a quick template-based website and then disappear.

Richard Purcell, Osteomyologist

Our latest new site is for Richard Purcell, an Osteomyologist who practices in Aberystwyth and Aberaeron. You can see the full site at

What is an Osteomyologist you ask. Basically it was developed by chiropractors and osteopaths as a fusion of the best practice of both disciplines, and focuses on the root cause of the condition so that the symptoms abate and reoccurence is prevented where possible. Richard worked as a qualified Chirpractor for many years before switching to Osteomyology.

As someone who has suffered from 'a bad back' for decades, I cannot say too much in praise of the skilled people who have sorted it out for me. I started seeing a chiropractor in Peterborough many years ago, and have used them regularly ever since. I've been an occasional visitor to Richard for the last ten years, and he is excellent. In my case, the chiropractic/osteomyology has been complemented by Alexander Technique training from Gail Barlow (another of our customers!)

The development of the site presented some interesting challenges from a Search Engine Optimisation point of view. Usually a client who is a fishmonger or whatever can be described as that, and people will be searching for a fishmonger or fish seller. This one is a bit different: Osteomyology is a new discipline and few people will be looking for one. What people with bad backs will be looking for is a Chiropractor or Osteopath or similar. But only members of the College Of Chiropractors can call themselves Chiropractors. Richard has a degree in Chiropractic, as well as years of experience and other qualifications, and was a member for many years, but isn't any more, so we can't simply create pages saying 'Chiropractor Aberystwyth' without falling foul of the law. But at the same time we want to ensure that Google etc include the site for searches for Chiropractor. And I think we've managed it...time will tell. Have a look at the site to see what we did.

My First Post

I suppose if I'm going to have a blog I ought to say a little bit about me and about the business (Technoleg Taliesin)

I've been fiddling with computers for a very long time. I wrote my first program (in a language called Algol W) to be run on the St Andrews University IBM 360/44 mainframe back in January 1975, as part of the 1st year Mathematical Methods course. I've never looked back since. I used the University computer until I left, then got a job with Pearl Assurance programming in a language called PL/1 (and later COBOL). I got my own ZX81 in 1981 and evolved from there. I got online using Prestel on my Sinclair Spectrum, then used the CIX bulletin board on dial up using my first IBM compatible PC, and in about 1992 I started fiddling with some new-fangled thing called the Cello 'browser' to access 'websites' on the 'world wide web'.

I developed the first version of my own website ( - still there) in the late nineties, and at the same time started getting involved with web development at work (Eagle Star/Zurich in Cheltenham by that time). I worked in Java on the motor insurance on-line quote system (one of the first), then doing various jobs on the main websites and other web-based developments.

In 2002 I did a runner and set up Technoleg Taliesin, aiming to specialise in bi-lingual website development and advanced database-driven websites (I've been juggling databases for many years). That was over a decade ago and we're still in business, with a very long list of customers, small and large, throughout Wales (and beyond), so we must be doing something right.

I think some of the most important things I've learned are that IT developers need to be flexible and focus on the purpose of the project. Languages and platforms come and go, (remember WAP phones?) but the basic principles still apply. We need to constantly adapt and be willing to learn about new technologies, but not blindly - the flavour of the month may be just that, so don't jump on every bandwagon.

If we're developing websites (or writing programs) it has to be for a reason - usually to help the customer's business. So we need to forget clever bells and whistles, and keep asking the question: how will this feature help to achieve the aims of the customer?

And that's at the core of what Technoleg Taliesin offers now - the mechanics of building a website are fairly straightforward - what we are offering is the knowledge derived from 30 years in business IT about how we can best use IT to further the customer's business aims.