I’ve been sitting on my offsite backup upgrade for a long while now and finally decided to pull the trigger this week. I’ve used MozyHome for many years but the Mozy rate hike 6 months back agitated me. Combine this with the fact that, for more money, I’m not even getting the amount of backup I used to get and it was clearly time to move on, even though I’m nowhere near the 18 billion Gigabytes of storage Mozy claims I’m using.
I looked at some side-by-side reviews of home backup products and found that gigaom had the most useful reviews. Their original review, which was done in 2009, compared the two top contenders at that point in time: MozyHome and Carbonite. I’ve included the link more for completeness at this point since these I wasn’t really interested in these two players. Gigaom’s review of upstart providers Backblaze and Crashplan was much more interesting and convinced me to go with Crashplan as my new backup provider (bye, bye Mozy). I’ve always been interested in Crashplan’s unique peer-to-peer backup option. With their unlimited offsite backup now being extremely price competitive and with an optional family plan, Crashplan has all the features I’m looking for.
These tool discussions are also recurring themes on all of the major discussion forums. It seems that every so often one of these questions hits StackOverflow and everyone chimes in with their favorite current tools. Invariably, for the .NET tool lists, there are some tools that always show up and; enjoying near universal advocacy in the .NET developer community. This includes tools like Reflector and Fiddler on the free side and Ants Profiler and Resharper on the commercial side.
For this blog post, I’ve decided to go with 5 tools you’re not likely to find on any/many of these lists. While some of these tools are .NET-specific, other tools are just solid development tools that are likely to be great additions to any .NET team’s toolbox with the added benefit that they work across multiple technologies.
Badboy. Likely the biggest sleeper on my list. Badboy is an extremely easy-to-learn web application testing tool. Check out the online documentation to understand features and then use it to guide your learning. Chances are that you’ll have most of the basic and intermediate level scripting tasks mastered within the first 30 minutes of using the tool. Compare the cost of a Badboy license ($45 / individual or $30 / each for a 10-pack) with the cost of your existing web application testing tool. Chances are you’d be saving hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per license. If you need to scale beyond simple Badboy threading / load testing capabilities, Badboy scripts can be exported in a format consumable by Apache JMeter for more heavy duty controller/generator type load testing. Also, the Wave Test Manager server, from the makers of Badboy, allows you to upload and share badboy scripts across a project, schedule execution of the scripts, and access the reports from the tests on a central server.
Lightspeed ORM. When the discussion of Object Relational Mappers (ORMs) comes up, NHibernate and the Entity Framework are almost always at the forefront of the conversation. LLBLGen gets added to the list as well if commercial ORM’s are on the table. Rarely, if ever, is the Lightspeed ORM from the Mindscape team down under ever brought up. It should be. If an awesome Visual Studio modeling experience and second generation LINQ provider don’t convince you, maybe the Rails’esque data migration facilities will. Still not convinced? Check out the custom LinqPad provider and LINQ-to-SQL to Lightspeed drag and drop conversion. If there are new features you’d like to see or if you need bug fixes, Ivan and the team at Mindscape are all ears and provide a near legendary turn around time.
Silverlight Spy. Let’s recap just in case you missed the news – Silverlight is hot!!! It’s a pretty significant change from either the MVC or WebForms approach most .NET web developers are used to and takes a while to wrap your mind around. Silverlight Spy does for Silverlight what Reflector did for the .NET Framework, pulls back the covers so that you can inspect and understand. Silverlight Spy provides insight into the XAP package, isolated storage information, performance data, an accessibility view and so much more. The message from Microsoft over the last 6 months has been – learn Silverlight. That task is made so much easier with Silverlight Spy at your side.
DTM Data Generator. Microsoft recently finally got around to including a data generator in some versions of Visual Studio. If you restrict yourself to SQL Server and are willing to deal with slow data generation, it might even be a good fit for you. RedGate’s SQL Data Generator, which I’ve written about before is much more efficient at loading data, as long as you stick with SQL Server. If you’re looking for data generation tool to meet your needs, irrespective of the underlying database you use, DTM’s Data Generator is the tool for you. DTM’s data generator supports SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, DB2, Sybase, and any database you can access through OLE DB or a DSN. It supports inserts of most major datatypes, including BLOB generation and supports a variety of rules comparable to RedGate’s product, including the use of custom rules. The enterprise version can be executed from the command line in silent mode, making it perfect for generation of data in preparation for the execution of an automated test suite.
Performance Analysis of Logs (PAL). This tool just doesn’t get enough love from the .NET development community. Oft maligned as the “poor man’s SCOM”, PAL can be a real timesaver and/or lifesaver. It’s so simple: capture the PAL specified counters for the platform being monitored (most major MS products such as Windows Server, IIS, MOSS, SQL Server, BizTalk, Exchange, and AD are supported), import the counters and let PAL do its thing. It’s “thing” is producing a detailed report for the counters showing how they looked across the duration of the capture and when the counters exceeded thresholds. PAL also provides explanations for each of the counters and details the implications are of exceeding the thresholds. More useful information for a better price you will not find.
I was up at Penn State IST school this past week giving a lecture to a class as part of our recruiting. As part of the class, which was about application integration, I touched on the HTTP protocol. I believe that it’s extremely important that everyone starting out in web application programming or web-based integration have a deep knowledge of the HTTP protocol. Although you should eventually read a book about HTTP and ultimately read the protocol itself, sometimes it’s easier to learn by tinkering. Along these lines, I thought it would be interesting to provide a quick demo of using Fiddler to inspect the HTTP protocol. I’ve included the screencast here. My apologies for the speed of the screencast. I was in a hurry to get it done and it sounds like I had an energy drink of five too many when I did the voice-over.
I used Camtasia for Mac to record the screencast. Camtasia for Mac is a relatively new entrant to the marketplace and is priced at $99 to compete directly with Screenflow, the long time incumbent in the Mac screencast market. The tool couldn’t be easier to use. It took no time at all to capture the screencast and post-capture editing, an area where Camtasia has always shined, is both powerful yet incredibly intuitive. If you’re in the market for a Mac screencasting tool, I can only recommend Camtasia. You can pick up a free 30 day trial and, after that, $99 introductory pricing will get you the full product.
Outlook plays an important role in my day-to-day work. It’s the one omnipresent desktop application – the first thing I open when I start Windows and sticking around as long as Windows is running. Over the years, I’ve adopted, tailored, and shared several techniques for inbox, to-do list, and archive file management. Even with these techniques, I’m always looking for ways that Outlook can meet me half way and make the task of managing the daily email avalanche a little bit easier.
I was hoping that the upcoming release of Outlook 2010 would provide some features that would really wow me. I’ve been working with the beta version of Outlook 2010 on several of my machines and, although there are some nice features such as threaded email conversations and some basic social networking integration, I have yet to say “Wow”. Since Outlook 2010 wasn’t fulfilling all of my needs, I decided to look into Outlook plug-ins to see if third party software vendors were able to fill the gap.
I was surprised to find that there is a relatively small offering of Microsoft Outlook plug-ins. I found three that I decided to assess. I’ve provided a brief summary of these tools below as well as my initial impressions.
MissingLink– MissingLink was the first plug-in I looked at. It unifies emails, calendar entries, contracts, files, and tasks into a project view, which was one of the features I was initially looking for. I spent a day or two using the plug-in, only to realize that it was a quirky plug-in supported by a single developer. MissingLink simply wasn’t going to work for me and quickly fell to the wayside.
ClearContext – ClearContext was the second plug-in I looked at. It had all the project-based features of MissingLink developed in much more professional format that integrated very well with both Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010. MissingLink offers an abundance of features. As I evaluated these features, I found that ClearContext simply wasn’t for me. I don’t want to change my system for managing emails and ClearContext has a set way of doing things. Still, I’d recommend ClearContext to anyone looking for a new system to help manage their emails. The product looks to have a passionate user base who have benefited from using the product.
Xobni – Xobni (yeah, that’s ‘inbox’ spelled backwards) was the final plug-in I looked at. It offers none of the project management features I thought I originally wanted. Two weeks later, I’m hooked on Xobni and my colleagues at work are asking “what’s that cool thing in your Outlook sidebar?”
Xobni is available as a free plug-in from xobni.com. Once you get hooked on the free plug-in, you can opt for Xobni Plus, which will set you back about $30. The plug-in offers a bunch of very cool features. I’ve provided some color commentary and screenshots of the things that have impressed me over the last several weeks. Try Xobni out. I think you’ll find yourself saying “Wow” too.
Search. Xobni indexes all of your emails and provides screaming fast full text search. Once you use Xobni’s search, you will never go back to Outlook’s built-in search.
Automatic Address Book. Even if you limit your Outlook contact list to a sane number of contacts, Xobni will go make an “automatic address book” that includes everyone you’ve ever communicated with. It automatically extracts phone numbers from the emails and adds them to the address book for you and, if you’re using Xobni Plus, Xobni will use your Automatic Address Book for email address autosuggest so you’ll never have to look up an email again.
Social Network Interaction. Xobni crushes Outlook 2010 and Google’s Buzz, feeble attempts at integrating social media into email. Xobni seamlessly integrates with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Salesforce, providing you pictures of the people in your address book along with Facebook and Twitter status updates. I have shocked to find how many pictures of people automatically made their way into my Xobni address book.
Threaded Conversations with Zoom. You just have to see this one to believe it. Xobni creates threaded conversations for all of your interactions with a particular person. If you hover over the thread, you can see the entire conversation, along with the pictures of the people in the conversation (as available).
Time Scheduling Feature. I just love this one and wonder why Microsoft didn’t think of this 10 years ago. Xobni generates an email with your availability for the next week and sends it to the person in question. Very convenient way to schedule meetings, especially across organizations that don’t share Exchange servers.
Email Analytics. This is less on the really useful side and more on the “cool and interesting” side. Xobni’s analytics range from person-by-person rankings of your most important contacts to detailed statistics and graphs that are generated outside of the plug-in in a separate analytics module. Xobni also offers up “fun facts” about who responds to you the fastest, who you respond to the fastest, etc. so that you can follow up to these contacts with emails (with links to the Xobni product, of course).
When ScottGu puts the time into creating a mini-tutorial for a new technology, it’s usually something worth investigating. After seeing his tutorial / overview of the new IIS Search Engine Optimization Toolkit, I decided I ought to give it a look. With the new blog running WordPress on IIS, this seemed especially timely and relevant.
As Scott mentions in his blog, a prerequisite to getting the IIS SEO Toolkit up and running is the installation of the Microsoft Web Platform Installer. I was surprised how easy this installation went. When the installation is complete, you’ll have a new icon on your desktop and a new “Management” section within the IIS admin tool. The Installer looks like a great tool although I’m sure that some (myself included) will be leery about Microsoft installing server-related software on their machines.
I followed ScottGu’s recommendations for installing and running the tool. After running it both against Scott’s site and then performing some follow-up analysis, there were several things that I felt warranted a bit further explanation:
The scan of my blog took a lot longer to run. This was on the order of 8 minutes for my blog versus the 13 seconds Scott quotes. My suspicion is that, especially as your site’s link depth increases and you point towards more external media, the scan takes longer to run and pseudo-index it all. In short, the IIS SEO Toolkit is doing a full spidering of your web site and the time to do so will vary according to the size and complexity of your site.
Scott mentioned but didn’t go into a lot of detail on the robots exclusion and sitemap / site indexing tools. I was hoping that there would have been a bit more automation that would occur after the initial site analysis was run but was disappointed to find out that this was not the case. These tools look to be little more than editors slapped on top of these files.
On the positive side, there’s a lot more that this tool can do than was covered in ScottGu’s brief post. In short, the analysis provides four information groupings: violations, content, performance, and links. Of these, ScottGu only covers one, Violations. I offer some more information on the other capabilities and features below.
Site Analysis Trending Capabilities
The IIS SEO Toolkit stores historical analysis metadata and details. This effectively affords you the capability to perform analysis and trending of your site’s SEO and other critical metrics over time. You can see below how my site changed between two different analysis runs.
The content summary offers an abundance of information on content types, hosts, link, files, titles, and keywords. This information is useful for SEO and other site maintenance activities. The image below illustrates one example of the content summary – the pages with broken links summary.
The performance summary section provides information on slow pages, pages with a large amount of resources, and page performance metrics by content and directory type. These statistics require a bit of interpretation. The image below is of performance by content type. This report allows further investigation as to why some content types categorically take longer to render than others do.
All of the canned reports in the IIS SEO Toolkit are backed by a query engine. The ability to directly query the data is also provided using a simple query builder. As of this release, it looks as if queries are restricted to a single analysis run. It would be nice in the future if the queries could be expanded to span multiple analysis runs and provide a longitudinal picture of a site’s evolution.