Pocketing the office, travelling for real, and virtualizing everything else…

Part of the fun about gaining independence is being able to mix travel and work and play in increasingly flexible proportions, who says you have to work from 9-5 at a specific address?   But with the good comes the law of entropy: Stuff breaks!  The more you move, the more things collide… get lost, broken or stolen.  The more you have the more stuff can go wrong.  If this happens to be your beloved ipod, smartphone, or laptop with all your data this can put a serious damper in your …month, or quarter if it all happens at once.  Thankfully, working in the information age we don’t have the same misery as if everything was lost in a fire, earthquake or flood, thanks to the ability of bits to be duplicated, and a global network of cheap data storage, and easy backup.

Synch Happens

This trend started for me about 2 years ago I had 3 PC’s (a notebook, a desktop and a tablet PC), about 7 harddrives, then I did a cost analysis and found that I was spending a fair amount of time just maintaining them (somehow upgrades are never simple as they seem), getting them all internet access, the endless software updates (not just windows), and a surprising one for me: a lionshare getting software to synch back and forth, remembering what has changed, what was on which drive on which machine etc. This is the hidden price of mobility: Synch happens. There are many tools for synchronizing files between machines, some even built into windows, all of them have significant overhead.

Since I do my own IT work I have been out looking for ways to reduce the time I spend maintaining my machines and reduce synching. The answer is pretty simple ruthlessly eliminate devices based on what you are using them for, and reevaluate the true costs of things. I had a desktop I was using as a file server and a movie watching and home automation. Almost all of these are barely used, the 3 machine gigabit network was cool but still was a synch. The movies I could just as easily watch from my laptop, in the end I really just wanted my data.

The desktop with 5 of the 7 drives, filling it’s tower and many cords inflated it’s importance. Since it was an organic growth I never bothered to reinvestigate it’s true worth,  though the cognitive one was easy to spot: 5 drives ranging from 120 to 400GB is a lot to manage! one was temp the other installs, backups of the notebook and laptop drives, the other projects the other 2 music, photo albums that eventually grew so large they couldn’t fit on just one. One one hand a 200GB drive seems like a lot of data, and at the time you bought it for say $200 it was.  But the constant drain of minutes trying to shuffle files to fit on mostly filled drives and remember where things are adds up quickly which if your hourly rate is even $15 adds up to it’s worth quickly….a NEW 200GB drive is about $45. Sadly you can’t just add new drives indefinately, you run out of room (new case $130) and the powersupply can’t handle it ($100-300).  Compare this to a  Hitachi 1TB External drive can be had for around $300 which in my case could fit ALL of the drives in one, and eliminate one PC and related upgrades in the process. It’s book sized small enough to fit easily into a bag…if one dared.

The ends goal for me is one laptop and one PDA/smartphone and something to draw on.  Since I realized a few years ago that laptops mobility outweigh the cost benefits of assembling a desktop I went to a laptop as my primary machine, and haven’t regretted the decision.  As a student in college saving $20-$200 dollars was a big deal and assembling a PC from scratch made sense.  Countless hours of beating against hardware incompatibilities has taught me other wise. Upgrade paths are never as great as they are cracked up to be, as you are battling Moore’s law. A Dual processor won’t be faster than a single processor 2-3 years later, and the various memory, harddrive, power interfaces shift enough that it may as well be a new machine. Opening the case up things start breaking.

So now I have an Dell Latitude I got off ebay for about $1K, the docking station ($40) which allows for a PCI expansion slot, in which I put a nvidia multimonitor card ($50) bringing it up to 4 20″ monitors…the set also cost about $1200 from TigerDirect.com Christmas of 2006. It’s pretty much the best of both worlds for me, portability and massive workspace when home. I have a few high end audio cards (that are also mobile). So I’m not really missing much.  If I played games I think that consoles and renting the cartridges are still probably the best way to go.

Go West Young Man

Since I have basically just this laptop,  I’m about to go on the road for a full month visiting Chicago and Hawaii with my girlfriend. I’ve been working on  reducing this single point of failure.   The 1TB drive has worked out well, and getting everything backed up to the web as I aim to take as little gear with me. Between Amazon’s S3 and globat.net’s cheap hosting it’s very easy to backup pretty much everything I ever have done digitally in multiple places, strongly encrypted, for well under $200 a year. Given the massive amount of digital photos, work, (around 900GB) I’ve done this is cheap insurance.

I’ve had the unfortunate ‘benefit’ of having a few harddrives and a laptop fail in the last few years, which thanks to backups  no important data was lost, but buying a new machine requires reinstalling everything, which allowed me to measure the time it takes to get back up to speed from ground zero.  Around  2 weeks! takes to get all the development tools utilities downloaded, licensesd and setup properly.  Backups generally don’t what you want as all the hardware has changed, and or the new machine has a faster bigger harddrive, it’s not as easy to just drop in and go.

As such I’m starting to virtualize my machines, meaning running all applications in a virtual PC, which with processors including native virtualization commands is only 4% overhead from the normal machine in many cases. Compared to the week I spend getting setup, the inevitability of having something fail again, having the ability to backup is an easy sell. In some cases the same virtual machine images I’m working on will be the same I upload to Amazon to create highly scalable innovative web apps, or send to others to work on.

This is far different from traditional backups, as the VM image is platform independent, it can be run on Linux, OSX, XP, Vista on different hardware configurations as easily as moving a spreadhsheet file from machine to machine.  To boot almost any operating system can be virtualized, which is great for those of us doing cross platform development and testing.

The latest version of VMWare “ACE’ can run the virtual machine images directly off a thumbdrive, and Flash drives are big and cheap enough for most development needs I’m doing. So in my case if my machine were to die, get stolen or blowup in my travels I could get the complicated development environment running within minutes on any new machine/OS.   So it’s even possible to take all the entire machine with you in your pocket and leave the PC behind if you know your not going to work on the road and have access to a PC/Mac wherever you are going.

Smallest 2GB flash drive I’ve found
http://www.edgetechcorp.com/digital-media/sd-card-flash-drive.asp $60

Smallest 4GB flash drive (I’ve found)
around $60   http://kaanza.com/Shopping/ProductDetail.asp?Productid=400337

or standard sized 4GB if you want an integrated  finger reader for $130

Smallest USB reciever on a notebook mouse.
Also checkout the shrinking of the wireless reciever at the bottom:

9 thoughts on “Pocketing the office, travelling for real, and virtualizing everything else…”

  1. Hi Troy,

    I caught your excerpt in Tim Ferris’s blog today and figured Id follow the link here. I am one who started trying to simplify my life about a year ago due to strains on both job(self employed) and family( married with children), and you couldnt be more dead on than what was quoted on the 4-hour website. Thanks for helping bring to light the fact that simplifying down our lifes can actually leave us with more to enjoy rather than leaving us with less, as many would fear. Kudos!!

  2. Dude, I hungrily gobbled up all you’re talking about in this post. It would be awesome if you would describe in some detail how you integrate S3 and globat’s services into how you synch and protect your data. You’re further down the same path I want to travel, so I was psyched to see what you’re up to.

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  4. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Pocketing the office, travelling for real, and virtualizing everything else…, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  5. I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100% regarding Pocketing the office, travelling for real, and virtualizing everything else…, but it’s just my opinion, which could be wrong :)

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