Cloud computing

Spelunking CPUs

As the masthead on my blog says, I’m a Mac lover. I’ve used pretty much only Macs since those days in the 1990s when I was working on hush-hush corporate collaboration schemes between Sun and Apple. Of course at both and Huawei I’ve been required to use Windows laptops for corporate stuff – locked-down beasts, centrally managed, with Microsoft Outlook and all of the trappings of the Redmond monoculture. But I always had Macs for my personal use.
Then I bought my little netbook, an Asus EeePC. OK, that doesn’t really count – it’s like that smartphone that I used to have, which ran Windows Mobile. And pretty soon I replaced Windows XP on the netbook with Ubuntu Netbook Remix. so cosmic balance was restored.
But this week, I decided that I needed a machine for hacking. Something to play with Xen and Eucalyptus and Open Nebula and all of the cool Cloud stuff that’s coming down. Something to write a little Groovy on. And not a big developer workstation, but something I could take along with me on my travels.
Wouldn’t the netbook do? Not really. I had this idea that I could set up a dual boot configuration in which I could either run Ubuntu to do my coding, or start in Xen and load several VMs to let me simulate a network configuration. Perhaps I could combine them: do my coding in a guest VM under Xen, build a new OVF package on the fly, and launch it in a new VM. In any case, I’d really need a multicore CPU with a decent amount of RAM, and enough disk to manage a number of guest OS images. And ideally the CPU should support virtualization, just for efficiency. But I didn’t want to spend a lot of money: blowing over $1200 for a MacBook was not an option.

So I spent an evening at Fry’s and Best Buy, looking at my choices. There were plenty of really cool, and amazingly cheap, laptops. But the frustrating thing was trying to find one with CPU virtualization. There are so many different Intel and AMD CPUs out there, and even though there are only a few brand names – Core Solo, Core Duo, Athlon, and so on – the different model numbers hide a vast divergence in capabilities. Fortunately I had my iPhone handy, and I quickly got into the rhythm of checking the “System” Control Panel info on each unit and then searching the web for chip features. I found Ed Bott’s useful table, but that came out in May, and by now there were several new chips. I started to see a pattern – most cheap Intel chips did not have virtualization, while all AMD CPUs did. That lasted for a while until I bumped in to the AMD Athlon Neo, which doesn’t have virtualization. Sh!t…
The other thing that I noticed was that over the last 18 months or so the AMD:Intel ratio has shifted decisively in favour of Intel. There were relatively few AMD-powered laptops around, and even fewer in the thin-and-light category. Market forces, or market distortion? Hmmm.
Eventually I found what I was looking for at Best Buy: an HP dv4-2045dx with an AMD Turion II (dual-core M500 at 2.2GHz), a 14.1″ screen, 4GB RAM (expandable to 8GB), and a 320GB HD. Yes, the battery life isn’t all that great, and it’s a bit too thick, and the swoopy-dots-on-white design makes it look as if it’s been keyed in the parking lot, but otherwise it’s perfect. And at $575, it was almost exactly half the price of a 13″ Apple MacBook Pro.
Yes, it’s a Windows machine. Or it was – I just loaded Ubuntu 9.10 onto it… Next step, Xen.
Did I really need to go through all of that? And what about non-geeks? After all, Windows 7 requires hardware virtualization in order to run Windows XP mode. There are plenty of stories surfacing of frustrated PC customers who find that they can’t run some favourite application on their brand new Windows 7 machine. If it was so much work for me, how could the average buyer be expected to get it right? Microsoft really screwed up on this one – and Intel too, I think.


Heading back home after a month in China

So we’re at Hong Kong airport, waiting to board our flight back to Vancouver, and thence to San Francisco. Originally it was a 2 week trip, but we extended it to a full month. It’s been a good, productive trip, but I’m glad to be heading back. On the ferry from Shenzhen Shekou, Kate and I were comparing notes on the things that we’re looking forward to. Clean air is high on the list for both of us, we’ve got mild coughs from the ubiquitous dust and pollution. Quiet will be nice; China is a very noisy place. A nice glass of wine together with a chicken Caesar salad is on my list; I enjoy the food here, but I eat a lot of meat and fish, often cooked in hot oil, as well as noodles and dumplings. And while light lager beer is ok, I would prefer something with more body than Tsing Tao.
But now we face 12 hours of sleep, movies, and eating, followed by a 5 hour layover, followed by a puddle-jumper down the coast. See you on the other side.


This is a test of the ScribeFire blogging extension for Firefox.

Nothing to see here… move right along.


Hong Kong, multi-modal

Despite the fact that Hong Kong is now part of China, it is still a separate country for many purposes. You need to pass through customs and immigration to go from one to the other, and you need a visa which will permit this. Even Chinese mainland residents need a visa to go to Hong Kong. Overseas visitors to China can only visit Hong Kong if their China visa is of the “multiple entry” type, because a day trip to Hong Kong counts as leaving and re-entering China.
Both Kate and I had multiple-entry visas, and so the main question about going to Hong Kong was “how?”. In the event, when we returned to our hotel after 11-1/2 hours, we’d covered many different modes of transport:

  1. Taxi from the hotel in Shenzhen to Shekou ferry terminal.
  2. Hydrofoil ferry from Shekou to Hong Kong.
  3. Escalator up the hill through SoHo.
  4. Walking along Caine Street to the Peak Tram terminal.
  5. Funicular (the Peak Tram”) up to the Peak overlooking Hong Kong Harbour.
  6. Funicular down from the Peak.
  7. Open-top double-decker bus to Central Station.
  8. Ferry from Central Pier to Hung Hon.
  9. Taxi to Hung Hon station (which is much farther away from the pier than it looked on the map!)
  10. Train from Hung Hon to Lo Wu (Luoho).
  11. Taxi from the gargantuan station and border crossing at Lo Wu to the hotel.

When we arrived at The Peak it was drizzling, so we grabbed two seats outside the bar and sipped our drinks. I had a Singapore Sling, which seemed appropriately tropical. By the time we left, it had cleared up nicely. On the ride down from the Peak, I grabbed my iPhone and fired up the “iHandy Level” app, so that we could measure the maximum inclination of the tram during our descent. Most of the way it registered between 5 and 15 degrees, but there was one patch where it was over 25 degrees, peaking at 27. That’s intense.
Eventually we made our way to the Central Pier, and had a light meal in the rooftop cafe while the sun set and the Hong Kong skyline lit up in neon splendour. Then we took the ferry across to Kowloon, which gave us a great opportunity to see both Hong Kong and Kowloon from the water. At this point our lack of preparation showed through. The tourist map we were using (free, and worth every etcetera) showed Hung Hon train station to be fairly close to the pier, so we started walking. After a few minutes, we came upon a helpful signpost pointing out various local attractions and the walking time to each. It included the station – 20+ minutes. We found a taxi. From then it was fairly straightforward: a 40 minute train ride, then emigration, immigration, and a taxi ride back.
So obviously the most efficient way to go to Hong Kong is by train. They run every five minutes, whereas there are only six ferry sailings a day. On the other hand, the ferry puts you right in the heart of Hong Kong, while by train it takes two changes to get to the same point. And we wouldn’t have missed the ferry for anything: we saw so much of the harbor and the islands around Hong Kong. So this all worked out very nicely.
A few final thoughts. Shenzhen is a huge, rich, and vibrant city, but Hong Kong is an historic, wealthy, world-class city. We both want to return, to really explore and get to know it. I can see why expats fall in love with the place. And my feelings are only slightly coloured by the fact that in Hong Kong they drive on the correct (i.e. left) side of the road, and have wonderful old tramcars whizzing along Des Voeux Road.
And once again we were staggered by the scale of China. A couple of examples: I’ve seen the ports of Long Beach, and Vancouver, and Rotterdam, but they are puny compared with Hong Kong. I have never witnessed so many ships of all sizes buzzing around so purposively, so many cranes, so many containers. And when we left the train station at Lo Wu, the entrance hall was larger than the concourse of many airports. We went to get a taxi, and lined up for one of 8+ slots. Every 30 seconds, taxis would fill those slots, passengers would board, and the taxis would depart, to be immediately replaced by 8 more. Then 8 more. And 8 more. Nobody missed a beat.
UPDATE: Kate’s comments are here. She reminds me of one of the strangest features of our visit: the women. Everywhere we went, the elevated walkways were full of women. Thousands of them. Groups of 3-12 women, sitting around together, eating, talking, playing cards, painting fingernails, bartering things, surfing the web, gossiping, doing each others hair, or just hanging out. One or two men, some children, but 99% women. We saw them when we arrived at noon, and six hours later they were still there. Some special Sunday Hong Kong tradition? Curious…..


Catching up

I’ve let my social networking – blogging, FaceBook, Twittering, whatever – slide over recent weeks. Mostly it’s because of the sheer frenzy of life, but the Great Firewall blocking Twitter and FaceBook doesn’t help. So let me recap a bit.
Three weeks ago my team and I came out to Shenzhen for two weeks of meetings: architecture, planning, face-to-face time with opposite numbers, and so on. We made good progress – so good, in fact, that my boss asked if I could stay on for an extra two weeks to take advantage of the momentum we’d achieved. Naturally neither Kate nor I were too happy about this, and my first reaction was to say “no”. But then Kate came up with a creative solution. Last Saturday, the rest of my team headed back to the US, and I moved to a downtown hotel, more convenient for shopping and sightseeing. The next day, Kate arrived to spent the extra two weeks with me, having reorganized a bunch of commitments and getting a China visa in record time. And here we are.
During the week, I’ve been working flat out, so Kate’s been checking out the city. She’s photographed and blogged about her explorations, and she’s seen a lot more of Shenzhen than I have. And then this weekend I set work aside, and we planned to have some fun together. On Saturday, we went off with some friends and colleagues for a “team building” in a mountainous area just to the north-east of Shenzhen. The team-building was interesting, the Chinese-style barbecue (small self-organized collectives) was tasty, and the landscape was arcadian though a bit run down. It was a bit of a “magical mystery tour”, with the usual results.
And then on Sunday we went to Hong Kong. That deserves a post of its own.
We’re here until the 14th, when we fly back to the US. We won’t be there long, though: on December 7 we’re flying to England for a mix of family and business activities. That will take us up to December 21, and we’ll be home for Christmas.
UPDATED to correct several misrepresentations.


Minsk video

View here, at


Minsk World, and the consequences of showing off

This morning I took a taxi from my Shenzhen hotel (the Pavilion Century Tower) to Minsk World. The Minsk is a Soviet-era aircraft carrier (or battle-cruiser) which was sold off and converted into a theme park in Shenzhen. The taxi ride cost 60 RMB, and took me through a series of spectacular tunnels, the longest 1.3km. I spent about two hours at the ship, and shot a lot of video; I’ll upload a few clips to YouTube. (The first is in process right now.)
It was just after noon when I decided to leave. I walked to the main entrance, and looked around for a taxi. Nothing. Oh well: according to the map on my Android G1, the center of the town of Yantian was just a block north, so I started to walk. And then the driver got out of a tiny car that was parked nearby and waved at me. He spoke no English, I spoke no Mandarin, but the conversation was straightforward. “Can I drive you to your hotel – where is it?” Shows card from hotel. “How much?” Use display on cellphone to display: “80”. “No, that’s too much – I paid 60 to get here” (displayed on my iPhone via Oxford Translator). “Too little – how about 70?. And I took stock. Everyone had warned me to use only red taxis (strictly, red-and-silver), and not to risk the green taxis or the many unlicensed ones. But I decided to trust him. “OK, 70.
We set off along a route that initially confuses (and slightly disturbs) me, but turns out to be a cool short-cut to the highway towards Luohu, We zip through the tunnels, with the car windows open. Exhilarating. As we cross the Shawan River and approach the city, the driver closes the windows and turns on the air conditioning. This is a mistake: with the A/C on, the car barely has enough power to accelerate, and stalls several times.
Instead of taking the ring road around the north of Luohu, we cut through and pick up Sungang East Road. (I’m monitoring our route on my G1.) OK, this is fine; we’re making really good time. He’s definitely earned his extra 10 RMB. As we approach the intersection with Shangbu Road, we have a choice – turn left on Shangbu Road, then west on Hongli Road, or brave the most complicated intersection in the city, at Huaqiang Road. Seems like a no-brainer, and I show the driver the map on my Android and suggest that we turn left. No, no: he’s got a better idea.
He continues west on Sungang, then dodges around a bus and dives into a bicycles-only lane. Hmm. He zips along, scattering cyclists and pedestrians, drives through a cyclists’ underpass, and turns right. Things are looking promising. Then we turn a corner and come to a footbridge, which blocks most of the path. Easy for cyclists and pedestrians, but cars? Amazingly we squeeze through with about an inch of room on either side of the car. We can see our destination… but now there are steel tubes set into the pavement, blocking cars from entering. We need to get past; there’s no way to turn around or reverse back past the footbridge. I’m about to pay him and get out, when the driver decides to go for it! He squeezes the little car between the wall and the last bollard, and almost makes it… and then there’s a screeching sound of bodywork damage, right under my window. But we’re through. It’s only half a block to the hotel, so I tell him to stop, and pay him off. I give him a 100 RMB note, and he doesn’t hesitate to give me the full change of 30 RMB. I leave him gazing at his scratched paintwork.
I think I’ll stick to red taxis from now on, although the entertainment value was significant.