Being a CFO and other topics

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Category: Computer hardware

My Technology Life – An Update

I recently built myself a new computer after using the last one for almost 5 years.  My old computer was able to run all the programs I had without any real issues, but it was slowly getting more unstable over time, and the update to Windows 10 had been rough.

The Computer

This time I wanted to build a computer that could run the latest virtual reality headsets and I wanted to have something that again would last me quite a while.  I typically buy the second fastest consumer CPU that is available as the fastest is normally at a high premium in cost but with little extra speed, but the Intel 6700K had finally come down to suggested retail price.  I wanted the modern chipset that went with it so something on the Z170 chipset was what I looked for in a motherboard.  My timing was not that great for a video card in that both NVIDIA and AMD were about to release their latest generation, so I actually waited over a month after buying the rest of my components before fully setting the computer up.  The motherboard did have built in graphics and the CPU did as well, so I was able to test everything except for the new card.

I will make two observations.  The first is that I have always felt it important to be agnostic about brands when making choices on most of the components.  Years ago there was a great deal of variety in motherboards and how features were implemented on them.  Today, the two main CPU makers (Intel and AMD) release a new chipset with each new CPU generation and that chipset is very full featured.  I have almost always used Intel CPUs because for many years, they have been the best performing.  AMD often wins on the cost to performance basis, but it has been quite a while since they have had a chip that can compete for pure performance.  I did build an AMD-based computer a few computers ago because that generation they did have the best CPU.

CPUs are fairly quiet, but there often are techie “holy wars’ over video cards.  I admit to have fought a little in them back when 3DFX and their voodoo chips revolutionized 3D, but I got over it.  Now I just buy the card that I think does the best for me.  The two main graphics processor unit (GPU) providers are NVIDIA and AMD (they bought ATI years ago).  My last generation computer has an AMD video card (a 370) and that was based on AMD having better multi-monitor technology at the time as I like running 3 monitors.  There are edge cases where AMD has had better chips, but for the most part, NVIDIA has had the highest performing chips for a while.

Unlike CPUs, the price jump to the most powerful GPU to the second best is still enormous and unless you really are a power gamer or power user, there is little need to get the best GPU.  For the computer I just built, I ended up with an NVIDIA 1070 based video card (the board maker was MSI).  I had considered the AMD RX 480 as it was a lot less expensive, but the demand was so high that cards were hard to find and the custom cards had not come out yet.  So I went with the 1070.

I could write pages and pages on the latest and greatest differences between the board makers and the different CPU and GPU you could choose, but this blog entry will exist for a long time and tech sites are always much more current (I go to anandtech.com but ownership changes have made it less useful in the last year).  So I will give some more general observations.

The premium priced components in the consumer space are all aimed at gamers.  This tends to result in multi-color LED lights and a black (and usually red highlights) color scheme.  There actually is very little value add from what I can tell from my research for the extra price you pay.  There certainly is much less bang for the buck.  The video card I bought is branded as an MSI “gaming” card and it looks nice but does not really offer any performance improvements over non-gaming cards.

Motherboards are similar.  The Z170 chipset has plenty of solid boards that cost around $150 (can be found for less during sales).  You can spend $250 to $300 and just get a few extra bells and whistles that you may never use.

One final comment, if you build the computer yourself, be prepared to troubleshoot yourself and to have to refresh your knowledge.  I had a faulty power supply and it took me quite a while to track the problem down.  Google and technology forums are your friends here.

This is the system I ended up putting together:

Intel Skylake Core i7-6700K
– the fastest CPU currently available. Depending on luck, can be overclocked a fair amount
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO – CPU Cooler with 120 mm PWM Fan
– One of the bestselling coolers. Quite tall, was interesting to install
ASUS Z710 – AR
– all of the modern features of the chipset and none of the “gamer” bells and whistles that jack up the price. PCI-e sharing (which is common for the chipset) so might be a concern for dual GPU use but I plan on only using one GPU.
GPU – MSI Gamer NVIDIA GTX 1070.  As I mentioned, both the main GPU companies just released new cards and it is hard to find cards priced at regular retail prices.

G.SKILL TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) 288-Pin DDR4 SDRAM DDR4 3733 (PC4 29800)
– this is actually somewhat of a waste. Super-fast RAM that I probably would not need and I could of gone down a few notches in speed and double the amount for the same price as I will not heavily overclock
CM Storm Scout 2 Advanced – Gaming Mid Tower Computer Case with Carrying Handle and Windowed Side Panel – Black
– This is an updated version of the case I have been using the past 5 years. Roomy and has a handle on top which comes in handy more often than not. Plenty of room for fans, and a good front panel for USB
Antec 750 Gamer power supply.  I originally had a corsair power supply but it was faulty.
– Should be way more power than I need, especially if I do not have 2 x GPU
SAMSUNG 950 PRO M.2 256GB PCI-Express 3.0 x4 NVMe Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
– Very fast SSD (motherboard supported) that will be my boot drive and will have some applications on it
Mushkin Enhanced Reactor 2.5″ 256GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
– Secondary SSD for often accessed files and other applications
Seagate 3TB Desktop HDD SATA 6Gb/s 64MB Cache 3.5-Inch Internal Bare Drive
– Should be plenty of room, especially since I have a 16TB NAS
LG Black 16X BD-R 2X BD-RE 16X DVD+R 5X DVD-RAM 12X BD-ROM 4MB Cache SATA Blu-ray Burner
– I debated if I really needed an optical drive and finally decided to get one as I can see myself watching movies on the computer and I have a lot of Blueray disks (PS4 is my main player)
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2016 – Backlit Quiet Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with 10 Key Rollover
– Decided to try a mechanical keyboard. These have Razer designed mechanisms, not sure if as good as Cherry-MX switches. Quieter version.
Logitech G600MMO Gaming Mouse – Black
– Will move over from my existing computer. I do not use all the buttons and may look at another mouse

VR Headset

The latest technology that is just starting to go mainstream is Virtual Reality.  There are two main contenders for the headset market right now – the Oculus Rift (which is backed by Facebook) and the HTC Vive which has teamed up with Steam (owned by a company called Valve and the main marketplace to buy PC games online).

If I had to sum up the main differences between the two headsets, I would say that the HTC Vive comes with two controllers and can be used standing and moving (called room-scale) and sitting down while the Oculus Rift is mainly meant to be used sitting down and does not as of now come with VR controllers.  The Vive has a lot more content available for it now, but many programs are made for both headsets and there are not many non-game programs available.

I got to try out the Vive at uploadvr.com ‘ s offices in San Francisco when I was there for a meeting with a McGill University representative who wanted me to help in their entrepreneur program.  I had read that the room-scale made a big difference and when I tried it out I agreed.

The experience in both headsets is pretty good and you do really get a sense of immersion far beyond what looking at a screen will give you.  The Oculus Rift is about $600 and the HTC Vive is about $800, but the Vive comes with two controllers and two sensor boxes that enable the room scale VR.

I picked the HTC Vive as it has more software available today and because the built in ability to move around instead of just sitting down sold me on the system.  The actual graphics capability is about the same between the two controllers and both are just emerging, so the “best” choice may change rapidly.

I have only used the headset for a few days., so I will hold off on a detailed review, but I can tell you that the base experience lives up to the hype.

I am waiting to see what non-game uses there are for the headsets.  There is a fair bit of work being done to develop approaches and applications for the virtual world the headsets put you into that make it useful for non-games, but there are not that many real life examples yet.  I will be attending a meeting on that topic in a few weeks and will update and right a new blog after I have more information.

Getting the headset to work was somewhat of a struggle and the programs are all new and very much “early access”, so I hesitate to recommend it for everyone, but it has been quite fun so far.  One of my friends brought his young son over (son is around 10 years old) and the son was fascinated with the headset and wore it for hours.

3D Printing

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, 3D Printers are technology that is still not quite ready for mainstream use.  They still take a lot of fiddling with to get to work well and consistently and you need to be comfortable with at least some light mechanical work.  I recently bought another 3D printer, the Wanhao Duplicator 6.  It is over twice the price of the Wanhao Duplicator i3 I started with (and that is an excellent starter machine), but it is much more capable as well.  I will do an update just on the new printer and what I have learned since I bought my first one.  This update will include using a raspberry pi mini-computer to remotely control and monitor the printer.

The raspberry pi mini-computer part of my coming update will be extensive as well.  Quite remarkable what you get for around $50.

Why Bother?

This is a blog on being a CFO and I usually have Tuesdays are purer “CFO” topics and Thursdays are where my occasional other blogs show up.  So you may be wondering why I am writing on building a PC or VR headsets or 3D printers.

My reasons are quite simple – career growth and personal growth.  I live in the Silicon Valley area and there is a lot of interest in the technology around computers, VR and 3D Printers.  More and more, companies are looking for CFOs that are more than just the accounting and numbers person.  IF I don’t expand my mind and learn by doing in areas like this, then how can I be credible when I claim to be a good fit for a technology company CFO role?

I get personal satisfaction on learning new things, but with the competition out there today, I really think that you need to keep actively learning.  If you stop and rest on your laurels, you will be passed by.  I often have had staff ask me how I got to know our company’s products, and it is the same drive that makes me want to understand VR Headsets that made me dig into how electricity comes from a solar panel.

So try not to dismiss other people trying to learn and very importantly, encourage your staff to do so.

 

 

My technology life

I think I have been the IT support person in all the households I have been in. From growing up with my parents to my current partial bachelor days (partial as having a 19 year old daughter live with you is not being alone), I have always maintained the infrastructure at my house and made the recommendations on what technology to get.

Since this is a Thursday and I usually talk about my interests, this week I will discuss my long term love affair with computers and similar technology. For someone that has liked accounting and finance since grade 9, I have managed to keep tinkering away with technology pretty much all my life. My first real technology project was building a blue box on a bread board using a schematic I found on BBS.

As I said in the Hello World entry that started my blog, my first experience with computers was on an Apple ][ + computer in high school. The first computer owned in my house was an Apple //c (I convinced my parents to buy it) and the first computer I bought with my own money was an Apple II GS. Even my first work computer at KPMG was a Mac. With all of that you might be surprised to know that all my computers since then have been Windows machines. I guess I can ascribe that to two reasons. The first is residual bitterness that the Mac won over the II GS (you have to be a real long term user of Apple computers to understand the Woz vs. Jobs days). The second is that I always liked to tinker with my computers and personalize them and the Mac just was not designed or built for that.

I have never owned a Windows desktop that I did not build myself. The first one was a little scary to build and overclocking my Celeron 300 to 450 (via instructions from Anandtech.com) as a big move for me. Even since then I have tended to buy the second fastest processor in the line that was the best at the time as the bang for the buck is higher. I had the AMD Athlon chip one generation of self built PC, but most of my time building PCs Intel has been the obvious and best choice. The last five years or so, the main processors have become powerful enough that there is little reason to replace them. My current processor and motherboard combo is over 4 years old at this point and it works more than well enough.

I am a very big fan of multiple screens and I use 3 now when I am home and using my main machine. I have an AMD graphics card, but I have rotated through the leaders for years. I was a big believer is 3DFx and their voodoo cards. I was even heavily invested in the early nVidia vs. 3DFX discussions on Silicon Investor and abandoned 3DFX after they invited me to their office and gave me a review unit of the Voodoo 5000. At that point I thought that nVidia just had the better graphics card and much better execution. Today AMD and nVidia go back and forth for who is best and I also buy the second best of their line and there is not that much difference right now. Having more than one screen is very important and I really enjoy having three to use. It seems like one big screen should be good enough, but once you try two or more it is really hard to go back.

The only other real change I have made in my builds in recent years is moving the operating system and the main programs I run to and SSD to I boot a little faster and the typical programs I run load faster. The technology there is pretty stable now and any of the main SSD are fine. I never pay for faster mechanical hard drives as I really don’t notice a difference. I have experimented with different mice and keyboards but for the most part think that Logitech and Microsoft make good enough models.

I do spend a little extra on my home router. The last few I have owned are ASUS routers. They have their own version of DD-WRT which is an open source router software you can use to overwrite the basic software that comes on many routers. I like the parental control features of the router and I am sad that my two teenage girls cannot out think their dad and hack into the routers and override it. I prefer to attach my media players and main computer with a physical cable instead of relying on wireless. I already wrote a blog entry on the networked attached storage(NAS) I use, so I will not go into detail here on the same topic.

My kids are Mac users through and through, so I have had to learn that as well, but I am not as good with MacOS as I am with Windows. No disasters so far and my NAS is a Time Machine target for backup for them.

I have had friends and family members ask where I learned how to put everything together. For example, I even can make my own Ethernet cables. The real answer is what Musashi always says – practice. I spent years being patient and learned it. Google is also an excellent tool. No need to seek out the latest issue of 2600 magazine for the latest cool hack, a quick search gets you answers. I am not so cutting edge as I do not have any VR googles, at least not yet. My main machine is getting a little long in the tooth. I do have the latest Apple TV and Roku. And a Fire TV stick all connected to my 3D TV. I chose 3D over 4K as there is more media on Blueray available. I was an avowed Plasma TV buyer but have reluctantly switch to LCD.

I was an early user of PDA, I had a US Robotics Palmpilot and even was buying and reading books via Peanut Press. I liked Blackberry, but was quickly an iPhone user and have been buying a new one every two years. I am typing this up using the MS Word app on an IPad Air 2 and I type almost all my blog entries on my IPad. This blog was typed in the car too and from my office and in the Camel bar in Suzhou while I was having dinner. I use a stand I bought from Amazon and a Bluetooth keyboard as I can type much faster that way. Again, not so cutting edge. I have owned some Android tablets but I am pretty locked into the Apple ecosystem at this point with much of my media purchases using Apple DRM.

I do think keeping up with the latest technology and experimenting and doing it yourself helps in your job as well. CFOs often run IT and I feel much more confident when discussing the latest network infrastructure build out since I know how it works. It does take some time to get it right and you do have only yourself to rely on for tech support if you try and build your own PCs, but there almost never are any serious issues once it is up and running properly. Who knows, you might even impress your kids.

AmazonBasics Adjustable Tablet Stand

AmazonBasics Bluetooth Keyboard for Apple Devices (iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone)

What is network attached storage and why should you use it?

I have had a keen interest in computers even since grade 9 when I started to have access to the Apple ][+ computers that my high school had purchased. This is not meant to be an article on the old history of personal computers, but Apple was one of the very first companies that got a few basic things right and that laid the foundation for their early success. One of these things was the introduction of floppy disk drives for their products and the leap in usefulness that happened when you moved from cassette tape to a floppy disk gave them a big advantage. The speed and storage gave them a big advantage.

Storage has always been a niche but crucial part of the experience of using a computer, even if a computer is disguised as a smart phone or tablet. With exception of terminals that were just a screen and a keyboard connecting to a remote computer that had the storage, most home users have relied on local storage, or storage located in the device or computer you use. The main reasons for this has been speed and ease of access. If you want to watch a movie or listen to a song, the huge drop in speed to download over slow connections compared to it just starting to play immediately.

The problem is that media files take up a lot of storage. So you either need to have larger and larger hard drives in your computer, pay for more storage memory in your mobile device, or rely on outside storage and download over the Internet which can be slow and hard to access. If you have a family with kids, everyone will want more and bigger hard drives and sharing files can be either a drop down to the “sneaker nets” that always seem to exist (copy onto a flash drive and walk over to the other computer) or opening up your computer hard drives to sharing and dealing with it computer by computer.

The first time a hard drive crashes and you do not have a back-up is all most always the motivation to make backing up something you want to do on a regular basis. The first solution many people try is a USB drive plugged into their computer and manually copying files. This also only covers the one computer it is plugged into. Multiple back-ups means either multiple back-up disks or moving the sub hard drive from one computer to another.

Another reason is because you want access to media files and you don’t want to have multiple local files. With many devices that can now play media files to TV’s or audio systems or some other playback device, it makes sense that you would want one access point and source within your house instead of keeping many copies that all take space.

Finally, you may want access to some files when you are traveling. You can again use a USB drive or make local copies, but you need to plan in advance then and know what file you want to bring with you.

Since this post is about NAS, I am sure that many readers might expect me to jump right to the different main companies out there, but there actually is an intermediate step. If it is just back-up and file access you need, your router may already have a built in solution. Many higher end home routers come with a USB port and the ability to share files if you plug a USB hard drive into it. Even if your current router doesn’t have that feature, that fact alone probably means that you have a lower end router. If you are moving a lot of data around, a higher end router that lets you plug in and share a hard drive might be all you need.

If you will have multiple people streaming or using files at the same time (or multiple devices), then a dedicated NAS unit may be better. There are two main companies that provide NAS and quite a few companies that are not the leaders but do sell dedicated devices. You can even build your own. The two main companies are Synology and QNAP. Some examples of smaller companies or companies that also provide NAS are Asustor (the company I chose), netgear, and the main hard drive companies like Western Digital and Seagate.

When you buy an NAS, you are essentially buying a small, dedicated server. Small as in size of the device compared to a normal computer, not small in storage area. Typical HD configuration is either 2 drives or 4 drives. I suggest 4 TB NAS drives which means 8TB or 16TB before the effects of RAID (is any). The main NAS on the market all have a modified version of Linux in their firmware. What they have done is add a “skin” or outer layer that you can access via the A web browser that allows,you to configure and use your NAS. They have tried to make configuring the files as easy as possible compared to straight Linus.

The basic function of serving files comes from SAMBA, a well developed service. The file services generally available are SMB (server message block) and CIFS (common internet file system) both based on protocols that Microsoft introduced. You don’t need to know all of this to use your NAS, but it should work fine with standard Windows and Mac computers. All of the mainstream NAS allow the NAS to be a Time Machine back-up target. That means that backing up your Mac should be easy and automatic. All of the major NAS allow you multiple accounts for different users and allow you to even determine how much disk space each gets.

One of the very first choices you need to make when first setting up your new NAS is what RAID you will use. RAID stands for redundant array of inexpensive/independent disks and is a technology that allows several disks to be seen as one logical unit and may also help in integrity of your data via mirroring of data across several disks. The most commonly used RAID is RAId 5 and it basically allows a 4 disk array to keep working even if one disk goes bad at then penalty of losing 25% of your storage (it actually is n-1 disks available so 3 disk means you can lose 1 disk but you lose 33% of your storage).

Before I get any further, let me state clearly that RAID is not back-up. Even if only one drive does fail, there is a reasonable chance that something else will go wrong when the drive is replaces and a new array is built. RAID can help partially protect your data depending on what type you choose. Some RAID like RAID 0 are very fast but one disk failure will result in data loss in all drives.

My general advice is this. RAID 5 or no RAID. I personally use RAID 5 and sacrifice the space for a little pice of mind. No matter what you choose, back up the files on your NAS. You need at least 3 disks to run RAID 5, so if you go with a 2 disk model for your NAS you need to make another choice. Let me assure you, what RAID to use is almost a religious decision. There are quite a few people that strongly dislike RAID 5 and they would disagree with my advice here.

You will want to connect the NAS via an Ethernet cable to your router. Most do not come with built in wifi capability, so you need to do that anyways. Since they do not need a screen or keyboard, they can be put just about anywhere that is handy for them to be connected to the router. Many come with 2 Ethernet connection ports. If you use both they will try and balance demand over both ports to keep throughput as good as possible.

Once the NAS is up and running, you should explore all the additional programs available over and above the basic file service. You may also have to forward a few ports in your router if you want to access the NAS from outside your home network.

Some example programs that are available: surveillance camera software (all that storage is good for something), iTunes server (unfortunately does not work with Apple TV), ERP, customer service ticket systems, media servers such as Plex, photo file servers, personal cloud software, Teamspeak servers, anti virus software and sophisticated back-up software and many more.

You can always use an online, cloud service to back-up and it might be the right way to make occasional offsite back-ups of your NAS.  However, this can be slow to do on a regular basis and you can serve files on your local network much faster from a local source than an external, internet based source.

I like using my NAS and I recommend that you consider getting one for your own home. I probably will return to this topic in a while with a lot more details on a few areas.

Some home or small office NAS I recommend

I personally picked the Asustor 5004T for my own use but I like all three I recommend here.  This was mainly because you get a little more hardware bang for the buck.  The user community for QNAP and Synology is much larger.  Each of these should be able to handle some media transcoding.

Asustor NAS 5004T

QNAP TS-451

Synology 415+

NAS Hard Drives

I recommend the WD Red 4 TB drives.

NAS hard drives

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