Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How to Embed Video into your IBM Connections Wiki

Everybody loves video but while IBM Connections allows you to upload images, for some reason it doesn't have a simple "video upload" function.

No problems though... just add your own code.

Attaching your MP4 File

If you're referencing an external public video, for example something on Youtube, then you can simply copy the embed codes from there.  If you want to host your own video (privately) on connections, you'll need to follow these instructions;


  1. Open your IBM Connections Wiki and go to attachments. 
  2. Upload your MP4 file as an attachment.
  3. Once it's uploaded, right mouse click on it and copy the URL to the Clipboard.



Figuring out How Big Your Video Is

You'll probably have seen your video playing somewhere already, so if you can, screenshot it and put it into a graphics package.  Crop the edges so that just your video is showing and then attempt to do a resize.  The original dimensions shown, should give you an indication of the size.

Alternatively, you can just take an educated guess....

From Youtube, the Common sizes video are;

  • 560x340, 640x385, and 853x505 for HD
  • 425x344, 480x385, and 640x505 for SD


Referencing your Video

Edit your Wiki Page and then click on the HTML Source Tab in the Top Right hand corner.  Find some blank space in the html and add the following;



Unfortunately, with this blog being on the web, I can't paste the exact code (because it gets interpreted by the browser) but to make things easier I've added the sample code below.  Simply;


  1. Change all of the curly braces { and } to html braces < and >.  
  2. Replace the Pink Width and Height with your own Width and Height
  3. Replace the Green url with the URL you copied earlier.


{object width="660" height="360"}
    {param name="movie" value="https://apps.ap.collabserv.com/wikis/form/api/wiki/12358946/page/1235446/attachment/123546/media/Game1.mp4"}{/param}
{param name="wmode" value="transparent"}{/param}
{/object}



Enjoy.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Designing Layout in IBM Connections Communities

Two of the most critical factors in the success or failure of your intranet are the ease of use and the degree to which it catches the eye. 

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of choices you can make with regards to IBM Connections Community design past the front page. Once you hit a forum or a library of files and folders, every single community starts to look the same. 

Luckily though, there's a fair bit of flexibility on the  opening page and on the Wiki Pages.  I've already covered how to make your community look more appealing in other posts (See Part 1 and Part 2) but I recently created an internal community that I thought might be useful as a design exercise.

A Tiled Community Example

This is an internal "social" community which uses a style similar to the Microsoft Windows 10 tiles. I chose that look because I thought it would be both "fun" and "familiar" to our users.

To build this, I simply made a 4 x 3 table and set it to 100% width. Then I went into each of the four cells in the top row and right clicked on them and set them to 25% width.   This ensures that changes within the cells don't muck things up.

Finally, I went into the Second Row, Second  Column cell and merged right.



From there is was just a matter of creating the pictures.

I decided upon a set size for each icon (about 400 x 400) and used a font icon set to create the white icons.  I also wrote on them using the same font and size.  I included a white border in my picture because I didn't want to have to rely on connections to do my spacing for me.  

The middle tile is double-width so it's 800 x 400.

When I added the pictures, I made sure that they were 100% of the cell size (you can do that by right clicking on the image and setting the options).

From there, you just link the images to the places you need them to go.

Other Places to Look

If you're stuck for ideas on how to make your online community look more appealing, go to Google image search and type in "Intranet Designs" and browse through the many different screens.

As you look at them, ask yourself, which bits could be done in a table?

This will give you an idea of how to approach the sites to build them.

Start on paper and roughly draw out what you want on your page -- then try to draw lines around your objects on paper to determine how many rows and columns you need and which ones need to be merged.

You'll find that there's a lot more flexibility than you'd expect. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Uploading Files to Connections using the Desktop Plug-ins

The new IBM Connections Desktop Plug-ins are out today... and there seem to be quite a few changes.

I decided to have a play and to document the experience for our users.  The result is another presentation. 

As usual, sorry for all the blurring but I have to provide some protection.  :-)

This particular tutorial simply shows how to get a file from Microsoft Excel 2013 up to a Connections.Cloud community using the File, Save As menu option.

There are other ways but I didn't want to confuse people with them... not yet anyway. 


BTW: If the controls on the slides aren't working, you might want to head over to Slideshare.


How to upload a file to an IBM Connections.Cloud Community using the Plugins in Microsoft Office 2013 from Gavin Bollard

A Word on Updates

The last slide in this series tells you where to get the plug-ins. They seem to update very regularly (monthly) and each update brings great new features. Of course, it's a bit much to expect your users to;

  1. Know where to look and how to check for an Update
  2. Have an IBM Greenhouse Account (which you need to be able to download)
  3. Know how to extract a ZIP file (okay, some people know that).
It was suggested that we should store the updates locally (perhaps in a community) so that our users can access them without all the extra hassle.  This is a very good idea. 

In our case, since our systems are "locked down" and users can't install anything without the administrator, that's mostly a moot point -- but we do still have a dedicated area where we store the current versions so that any future installs will use up-to-date installs which have been tested by the IT Department.  

In any case, your users may want to install these plug-ins on their home or other devices; depending upon your internal network policies. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

How to Share a File for Guests using IBM Connections.Cloud (a Slideshare tutorial)

IBM Connections provides some amazing dropbox-style facilities. If you're finding that you can't email a file because it's too big, or because it's prevented by mail gateways (something that is very common with EXE files), you might want to give IBM Connections a go. 

Note that in order to share a file, you need to have already accepted the person as one of your contacts. This procedure is explained in my previous Slideshare tutorial about How to add Guest Users to IBM Connections

This tutorial explains in simple terms, how to share a file with users. Everyone, even guest users, can share files (though guests clearly have lower limits than fully registered users).

If you do find yourself running out of room, consider creating a community to share your files in. Communities don't have file limits and aren't counted against a user's personal storage quota.

Feel free to use this presentation in your own organisation if it's relevant;



How to Add Guest Users to IBM Connections (a tutorial)

One of the strengths of IBM Connections is the ability to add guest users.  Unfortunately, for the moment, the process isn't as straightforward as it should be. 

Here's some documentation I created for our internal users which, you may find useful in your own networks. I've blurred anything here that could  be identifiable.




Coming Soon.....  I also have a presentation on how to share files in connections.  I'll make this available too as soon as I've done the blurring.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to Create a Good Email Signature and Use it in IBM Verse

The Simplest Email Signatures are often the Best

These days, email is arguably the most common form of “first contact” with a potential customer, client or colleague. People spend quite a bit of time refining the content of these communications, pushing them through both public relations and legal departments and checkpoints but very few people bother to check beyond the content, specifically ... their signatures. 

The aim of this post is to,

  • Prompt you to do some basic checks. 
  • Give you some ideas on how you can improve your signature
  • Document how to create a Signature in IBM Verse.

Ask yourself… 


  • When was the last time you sent a work-email to your Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo account to see how the signature looks and to find out what your signature looks like with any legalese added by your corporate gateway? 


  • When was the last time you checked out how your signature renders from a mobile device. 


  • Have you recently checked all phone, mobile and fax numbers and email addresses for accuracy?  If for example, your company changed their main switch number a few years ago, how confident are you (without checking) that your signature contains the right number now?

Once you've done these checks, consider scheduling an annual task in your calendar to check your email signature.

Critical Information for your Signature

There’s essentially three pieces of information which are absolutely critical for your email signature;


  • Your Name
  • Your Position Title 
  • Your Company Name
  • Your Contact Number(s)
  • Your Email Address


Redundant Information

Technically you don’t need to include your company name if your company already includes it as part of their standard legal footer. You also don’t need to include your email address because if a person hits reply (or hovers their mouse over the To: field in your email), they will get it.

Personally though, I prefer to include these two bits of information with the rest of the signature. That way, if the email gets forwarded or fragmented, your sections will be clearly identified. 

The trick of course, is to limit yourself to three lines of information.  If you can't fit it in three lines, then it's too much.

Non-Critical Information

The following items are non-critical and should generally not appear on your personal signature;

  • Company Switchboard Numbers
  • Company Addresses
  • Company Website 
  • Legalese 
  • Redirects (if you are out of the office)
  • Social Networking Pages
  • Skype or Hangouts Contacts
  • Favourite Quotes or trite phrases.
  • Personal Profiles (life stories)
  • Pictures (particularly Company Logos)
  • Advertising

All company information including switch and fax numbers, the website and Legalese should appear in a separate company footer.

If you don’t have a company footer, then you should at least allow enough spacing between your personal signature and the company signature that it is perceived as separate.

Pictures of any sort are to be discouraged but if a company logo is used, it’s part of the company signature, not part of yours.  Keep logos with the company footer.

The only picture that could be attached to your personal signature might be a mugshot of you.  If your business requires a lot of face-to-face contact, then this may be okay but otherwise, it’s a bit excessive.

Permanent redirects such as "if you can't reach me please contact my secretary on ...." should also be avoided. If your phone is unattended, calls should go to either a monitored messagebank or to a designated backup person.  Don’t make your customers do your communications routing for you.

Unless you’re in the habit of doing business over facebook and linkedin, these social networks do not need to be part of your signature.

Choosing Sensible Formatting

Things that work very reliably on the internet include boldface, italics and coloured lettering.  Things that don’t work so well include spacing, the use of multiple typefaces and the use of multiple sizes of typeface. The other thing to remember is that some typefaces, like Comic Sans, never convey a business-like feel.

With that in mind, a good signature will emphasise important words with boldface, highlight key areas in colour and depreciate less critical data in lighter shades.

Here’s a couple of examples.

Luke Skywalker
X-Wing Pilot | The Rebel Alliance
t: 61 7 0806 0546
m: 0447 879 216
e: masterluke@rebels.com


Master Yoda | Jedi Master and Friend | The Galactic Republic
t: 75 0889 4647 | f: 61 2 0549 0897 | e: yodanotfar@dagobah.com

You might notice that the colours also match their business branding… Luke’s is red, like the Rebel Alliance colours while Yoda has green.


How to Set a Signature in IBM Verse 

To set your signature in Verse, click on your person icon in the top right hand corner and then select Mail Signature. You’ll be given a dialog box in which to create your signature. Don’t forget to use the colours and the link tool to create links. (if you need to).

Signature1.jpg

If you tried (and failed) setting a signature in Verse any time prior to about April 2016, give it another shot. The signature functionality was still under development then.  It should be stable now.

Signature Generators

Of course, if you really, desperately have to have a complicated signature with all the bells and whistles, you can do that.  Simply hop on to one of the many online signature generators. To find them, simply google email signature generators.

One that I found is called htmlsig (https://htmlsig.com/)

The catch with these programs is usually that they want to charge you to store an image. The good thing however is that they often generate html which you can easily edit.


HTMLSig creates html output.  You can save this into Notepad and then save as a local HTML File (eg: C:\TEMP\MYSIG.HTML).  

Double-click on the file to open it in your browser of choice -- naturally for me, that's Chrome, then highlight everything and do a copy.  Go to the mail signature in IBM Verse and paste your text in.  It works well. 


Of course, for the best results, you'll want to retain control of your images.  To do that, edit the HTML and look for all the lines that contain IMG SRC="  This will tell you where the images are stored. Go to those URLs and save a copy of each of those files elsewhere online and publicly accessible (your web server or your Google drive can be used for this). 

Change the URLs to point to the new image locations and you're done.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Simplifying an IBM Connections Community for Rollout - Part 2

IBM Connections.Cloud is a very powerful set of software and services but using the default settings will result in a community that isn't very pretty, has low usability and will discourage your users from participating.

Luckily a few tweaks, some promises and a bit of work on engagement can make a huge difference.

The Overall Plan

Obviously you need to plan out what your guests and members will be doing in your community. It’s basic marketing. People don’t visit the site for nothing, they are there because of a basic need. You can’t begin to provide a solution until you've identified those needs.

The needs could be as simple as, the need to obtain information or the need to collaborate with others. These aren't mutually exclusive needs but they do suggest vastly different requirements. Providing information is usually done via files and/or wikis while collaboration is more of a forums thing.  Understanding the needs will help you to build a community which satisfies the needs of your users.

The best question to ask is; What would you want out of the site if you were a user?

Once you've thought it through, you need to consider workflow and story (how the information and sections should be organised).  Whether you’re providing forums or documents, having consistent, logical and relevant headings is very important.   You’ll also need to load your site up with branding and eye-catching graphics. I covered a lot of this in my last post.

Loading the Modules and Graphics

Assuming that you've done your planning, you probably have a good idea of what you need for your site. I'm not planning to go into detail on the initial construction of a community because I covered adding modules back in June last year.

The first module that you need to add is the Wiki. You may not be using this directly in you community but it’s still the best place to store graphics.   At the same time, you should open Notepad because you’ll want to save lots of URLs for easy reference.

Copy the URL for the Wiki and paste it into notepad.  Once you start hiding things on your community, you’ll have trouble getting back to the Wiki if you don’t have the URL.  Of course you can re-add it and then re-hide it again but that’s extra work. 

You'll eventually want to fill your notepad document with labelled links to to your main community page, any specific folders, forums, topics, surveys or other materials you might want to link directly to.

The Wiki

The Wiki will generally start with a welcome page.  If you're not planning to use the Wiki, then you should still add a nice graphic and link it back to the main (outline) page of your community.  Casual (or accidental) visitors to the wiki will see the graphic, click on it and be quickly redirected back to the main areas of your site.


You can add lots of images into the attachments section of the wiki page, This section won't display for users unless they go looking for it, so it makes a good storage area.  As you add graphics, you might want to right-click on them to copy their URLs into notepad for later reuse. 

Setting App Security

Once you start hiding Apps, they will disappear from the App Security screens, so you'll need to edit their security settings first. 

To do this, go to Edit Community and select the App from the list across the top of the page.  You'll be able to change the settings for your App.  


In particular, since you're not using the Wiki except for storing your graphics, you'll probably want to prevent users from being able to modify it. Change their role to reader and save. 

While you're in this space, consider checking though the rights of the other apps. 

Building Your Outline

If you've been using Connections to create communities already, you're probably fairly familiar with the outline control.  You can change the layout of the outline page (decide on a 2 or 3 column layout and move modules around) but as I mentioned in my previous post, there's only a few areas that can really be customised.... the rest simply cannot be changed.


The best way to get your outline layout to work is to insert a table. It helps if you've already done a rough drawing of what you want in your outline. 

You'll probably want to set the table width to be 100%, rather than a specific pixel width. This ensures that it grows and shrinks with the screen.  You can also right click on cells and set the column width to percentages. 

If you right-click on a cell, you can choose to merge it down or across.  Merging cells is a key part of layout.  You can also set individual border and background colours. 

Images

When it comes to inserting images, you can simply add them via the URLs you copied to the clipboard. You can resize images by right-clicking on them and setting their width and height. If you set one of these values, the other will usually change.

What's not so obvious is that you can set the width to a percentage. At the moment, if you do this in connections, it will muck up the aspect ratio of the image (unless you set the width to a percentage and delete the number in height). 


Using percentages on images is great for rendering on various sized screens however sometimes it doesn't work out so well.  This is particularly a problem when you're using Icon buttons.  In that case, you might want to set the images to a fixed size.

Hiding Apps

You'll find that the more apps you use, the more cluttered your outline page becomes. There's a simple solution to this, hide the app. Hiding an App will retain its data (and indeed leave the app fully usable -- if you have the link).

For the most part, hiding the app removes the app from the outline page and from the drop-down menu.  Unfortunately not everything removes itself from the drop-down. Members, for example will remain even if the members app is hidden.


Before hiding any apps, make sure that you have their URLs copied to notepad.

If you need to unhide an app, you simply choose community actions and add apps.   The hidden apps are in a section of their own and can easily be added back in with the plus button.





Making the Page Engaging

The final part of the community experience is to make the page engaging.  You need to remind your admin users that they need to regularly add and update content in order to capture the audience.  

If you've set a static front page,  you need to find some way to add some more active content.  

In the example community page below, we've removed all of the standard navigation features on the outline and replaced them with our own. As a result, we're able to use the language of the users, for example "Agendas" instead of files.

The agendas link goes to a specific folder for agendas within the files system. We're also able to add more dynamic content, for example the date of the most recent meetings (with links to files for that specific meeting).  The graph links to a full statistical report and could be replaced at regular intervals with either different graphs or perhaps different reports.


The last thing to note is that the main menu content is all on the left hand side while the active content is on the right. This is because in a mobile environment where everything scales down, there's a good chance that some of the extreme right content will be lost. 

The most important part of the site is the overall navigation, hence that's on the left.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Simplifying an IBM Connections Community for Rollout - Part 1

Last Month, I wrote about the many problems with Connections.Cloud. One of the great things about working with IBM (as opposed to Microsoft) is that I've found that IBM are always willing to help. I had three separate contacts from IBM help me through the problem.

It became clear that IBM is aware of the shortcomings with Connections and that they're already well on the way to getting them corrected.  If all goes well, IBM will be in a much better spot than Microsoft by the end of the year. 

We managed to get the problems with our communities down to four things;

  1. Dissatisfaction with the way @Mentions currently work
  2. Lack of Collaborative document editing for guests
  3. Usability Features
  4. General Design Issues (Building without Design)
Of these, we were told that the first two can't be solved now but will be solved soon.  In that case, we had to either switch to another product (and inherit a whole new set of problems) or persevere without those features on the assurance they will be delivered in the near future.

We seriously considered the competition but decided to persevere with IBM.

Improving the Usability of Connections

The third thing, usability features, turned out to be something that we could resolve by configuring the communities better. Our IBM representative came out to our offices and explained how to do this and showed us a few examples. 

Essentially, we replaced most of the connections navigation features with our own and it seems to have made a huge difference. There's still space for some improvements in connections itself but at least now we believe that our guests will be able to use the systems we provide.

I want to go over these changes in detail but I'll do that in my next post. 

Stop Building before you "Design"

The final thing, "general design issues" was actually an internal problem - and one that I've faced many times before in other systems; The idea of building without design. 

In the old days, it used to be IT teams who built systems without design. I think that most of the IT people who were developing in the 80's or 90's can cite an interface (or ten) or an error message that they're not particularly proud of. 

It's something that I feel that the majority of today's IT teams have grown out of.  There's a lot to be said for developing with standards and libraries such as bootstrap. 

Unfortunately, one of the problems with today's systems is that by making them available for configuration by general (non-technical) users, we have once again put interface development into the hands of the untrained. 

Telling a Story, Not Showing off Features

Connections in particular, offers a richness of "applets" which in turn allows you to put "everything" on the screen at once. It's a difficult temptation to resist but if you don't resist it, you'll end up with a bunch of communities which not only all look the same but are also impenetrable to users. 

When you're putting together a community, you really need to be "telling a story".  You need to be asking;
  • Who exactly will be using my community?
    We're not talking about names here, though that can sometimes help. We're talking about attributes. What kinds of age-ranges will be using the community?  What kind of experience(s) will they be bringing with them? How technical are they (mainly high, mainly low -- or perhaps they'll have a wide range of technical experience levels).
  • What kinds of things will they be wanting to see?  
    You need to establish the language of people.  For example, unless they're very technical, they won't want to see "Files".  They might want to see "Research" or "Minutes and Agendas" or Whitepapers.  They probably won't want to see "Events" but might want to see "Meetings". Knowing what your people want is the key to labelling things correctly in Connections.
  • What do people need to get out of the System?
    Pretend that you're a user of the system. Think about what you'd want to get out of it. Perhaps you might want to visit a forum to discuss some design tips on a product?  If that's the case, don't just give your users a link to forums, create a forum (or at least a question) on design tips or on a specific product.

    In fact, I think it's fair to say that your users should never ever visit an empty forum.  You need to kickstart your forum internally (with proper discussion, not just with single questions) long before the first user enters the system. 
  • What are the top five things that a member of your community will need?
    All of the top things required by your community members should be a single click away from the home page of your community.  Anything that isn't a major outcome for your people probably shouldn't be on the front page -- or if it is, it should be much smaller.
  • How will Announcements be Made?
    Depending upon your community, you may find that you have announcements to make. It's not enough to assume that your users will see a red circle on the bell icon and investigate. We asked our user group, what they'd do if they saw a number there and some of them told us that they'd ignore it because it wasn't part of their system. ... (wow.....)

    So, if you've got a particularly big announcement to make, it follows that you should reserve some space on your front page for it. 

Contracting Artwork

The second thing about building without design is the idea of "contracting out artwork" without having a clear intention. 

In particular, don't contract artwork to simply reproduce buttons with the language of IBM Connections on them. Use the words from the language of your intended users. 

What this means is use words like Minutes or Agendas or Product Details.... not "Files" 

Don't assume that your external artwork providers will know anything about connections.  Be very specific. Tell them exactly what you need, otherwise you'll find they'll try to overwrite the whole connections experience, for example telling you to change the top menu in connections to "Red" for all of your guests.  Of course, it's possible to change that colour in your own internal company but it's not currently possible for guests. 

It's critical that you establish a guest account for the people making decisions about your community. Make sure that they know what the system looks like for guests -- because it's quite different from he "paid subscriber" screen.

Below is a screenshot showing my guest user account and highlighting things we were asked to change (but can't).  The blue bar at the top of the screen, the grey panel on the side, the bell, the words in the menus, the entire left hand menu, even the user's personal profile.

Each time we said "No, we can't change that", we were met with irritation from our business users and the designers. 


Designing FOR Connections

Ultimately, the answer was to work WITH connections, and not against it. Design things that will work in connections and plan the user experience to drive them to the things you want to engage them in.

One of the best ways to do this is to get some paper with the connections banner and grey sidebar drawn in -- and a lot of white space in the middle.   

Have your users draw navigation options in the blank space and tell them that almost anything goes in terms of static pictures and text except for overlapping hotspot circles and layers (eg: Editable text on top of graphics).  

Essentially you'll need to be able to draw a table around most of the content, so it's imperative that everything can be fitted neatly into a box.  While it's not impossible, it does introduce a lot of challenges, particularly as you move between screen resolutions. 

Here's how to explain that requirement to users.... Remember, it's only in terms of hotspots (clickable items), everything else can be a picture -- so long as the loading time isn't too long. 


and here's a blank form that you can use..


A Sample Blank form you can use. The three user-configurable areas are in red.
 
Where possible, print several forms and try to encourage your users to be creative while still considering the story (journey) that they want a user to the site to embark upon. 


A Quick Example

Here's a look at one of our internal IT communities, showing something that (while it might be the right way for overly detailed-orientated IT people like myself to work) is NOT suitable for general use by guests.  In fact, after our recent experience, I think there's some serious redesign about to happen.

What NOT to do

What to Do
Compare this with one of the clean interfaces we considered once we had our heads in the right space for this project.



In my next post, (unless something better turns up in the meantime), I'll walk through the steps to build a "clean" community. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cloud Chicken Companies and Watson

There's no doubt about it, the concept of cloud and social computing is scary, particularly if you're a lawyer. 

On the cloud front, everyone is so fearful of data theft and disclosure that they dig their heels in at the slightest mention of cloud, totally oblivious to the repeated warnings from security researchers that the majority of data theft occurs from within the organisation. 

On the social front, things are even more shaky with executives fearful of the power of negative commentary. It’s not unusual to hear business leaders saying, “we can’t have a twitter, linked-in or facebook account because someone might say something bad about us”.

Guess what. If people want to say bad things about your company in a public forum, then they most likely already are. By denying the company an official platform, you’re not denying your customers a chance to speak about you, you’re denying your company the opportunity to provide timely and “official” responses..

Like it or not, the future is cloud, the future is social. We have to embrace it.

On Prem vs Cloud

Unless you're in a company with military-grade security requirements, the choice of "on-prem" versus cloud needs to be more than a vague suggestion of security. In IBM Connections for example, there’s a very compelling reason to choose the “on prem” (on Premise) version over the cloud version.  It’s to do with customisation as the on-prem version can be customised much more that its cloud-based counterpart.

Of course, the on-prem solution is also much more expensive. Not just in terms of licensing but overall.  If you host your own connections system, then you’re taking onboard the costs of running hardware, keeping firmware, drivers and software up to date, performing backups and failovers and tests, and of course, troubleshooting.

Unless you really can’t live without the customisations that the on-prem solution offers, you’d  be far better off letting the cloud take care of things for you. 

This…  is the Internet

There was an interesting set of questions in one of the IBM verse sessions at IBM Inform 2016 in Sydney (and I'm sure that similar scenarios were playing out at Inform sessions globally).

The presenter asked how many people were using Connections.Cloud and Verse, then asked how many were waiting for the “on Prem” versions because their companies were too scared to put their data in the cloud.

The overwhelming majority of attendees fell into that category. 

At the end of the session, where the IBMers demonstrated many of the amazing features of Verse, they opened the floor to questions.

One of the first questions was;

“Since my company is planning on staying with the on-prem versions of this software for security and privacy reasons, what is the deal with getting access to IBM Watson?”

I was somewhat flabbergasted, as was half of the room and, it seemed - and so were the IBM presenters. They handled the question far better than I would have though. In my case, scenes from the IT Crowd flashed through my head -- particularly the episode where they give their boss “the internet” to take and show people.



I could just imagine them giving this guy a box with perhaps a plasma ball in it and saying, “this is Watson, take good care of it”.

Of course the presenters said, “Well obviously we’re not going to be able to give you Watson to install at your site, I imagine the data will need to be sent offsite”.



Having your cake… 

Now although I'm having a bit of a laugh at someone’s expense, it was by no means a dumb question; merely an interesting one -- and one which makes a great example to use when explaining the boundaries of these “on-prem” solutions.

The professional asking the questions, followed his question up with a few more about the safety of data in transit and the ability of other IBMers to intercept and read the data being sent to Watson but in the end, I felt that he more or less gave up. IBM didn't have the answers he wanted.  It’s far too early to make calls about the accessibility of Watson in on-prem solutions.

What I felt didn't get explained very well was that Watson doesn't operate terribly well with a single piece of data. In order for Watson to work effectively, it needs to be exposed to all of your data. This is what helps it to spot trends and themes and provide real business-value to the organisation.

Sending a random email off to Watson uses some basic capabilities but not full-fledged AI. It may be able to translate the document into another language but can't we already do that with Google Translate?  It doesn't mean that Translate is an AI, it's merely a very good interpreter.

In the end, you really can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t have the privacy offered by on-prem solutions while also having the benefit of systems which rely on significant levels of access to your data. You have to start trusting somewhere.

It’s clear that the next frontier (after social computing) is AI. IBM has Watson, Microsoft has Cortana and Tay (In Tay’s case it’s probably A without the I), Google has Google Now and Deepmind and Apple has… well, Apple has Siri (and perhaps Emotient).

If you’re planning to stay ahead of the competition, you need to be prepared to use AI. If you’re planning to use an AI from the market leaders, you’ll need to decide who you want to trust.  Right now, my best guess would be IBM’s Watson. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Trouble with IBM Connections.Cloud

I'm finding myself being increasingly frustrated by IBM Connections.Cloud. It’s a great product, don’t get me wrong. Arguably the most full-featured of its kind. Unfortunately it’s mired by some terrible executive decisions. 

In fact, the problems are so great that it’s pushing us to investigate other products which are “like” connections but are provided by other vendors. 

I came away from an investigation of Microsoft’s Yammer system yesterday shaking my head and saying, “that’s it. Game over”. 

Yesterday afternoon was one of the few times I've found myself in the uncomfortable position of recommending Microsoft over IBM. 


Today of course is another day. I'm a dedicated IT professional, so when I can’t sleep because a system is overwhelming my thoughts, I get up and make a list of my problems.  So, IBM, it’s 3.30am and this one’s on you … and you owe me at least 2 hours of sleep.

Overall thoughts

I can’t fault IBM’s support teams both locally and internationally. They have been brilliant throughout the whole process. Far better than anything Microsoft or Google have ever managed. For the most part, I can’t even fault the product.  It’s technically sound and it does more or less what it’s supposed to, give or take a few silly limitations. Nope. Most of the blame  goes to the licensing team and to management for some truly horrendous decisions.

On-boarding

The gateway to any system is the on-boarding process. At the very least, you have to get this right. There are two parts to on-boarding;

  • On-boarding a Company
  • On-boarding Users


IBM Connections.cloud manages to screw both of these processes up, so if nothing else, at least it’s consistent. 

On-boarding a Company

Without covering old ground too much, (even though we still haven’t received a licence for our second company -- after about a month of waiting) there are three things wrong with the company on-boarding process;

Real Companies with ABNs Only Please

IBM feel the need to prove that the company is “real” - for example, in Australia, companies need to have an ABN (Australian Business Number). This is fine for registered companies but what happens if you want to on-board something larger than a company, perhaps an international forum?  A fledgling sub-company?  Good luck to you… if it doesn't have an ABN, it doesn't exist.

Microsoft’s Yammer on the other hand happily on-boards anything that has its own domain. 

A Fast Onboarding Process that Fails to Collect Information

Then there’s the on-line forms process for on-boarding.  It’s really slick and fast but it doesn't actually ask any of the questions that need to be answered. There’s a separate paper and signature based form for that -- and even then, the IBM provisioning team seem to ignore what you write and make their own choices. Again, Yammer wins hands down with a complete process that takes only a few minutes.


Segregated Data Centres

I said before that this was the single failing of IBM Connections.Cloud.  I was wrong, there are many other failings but I’d say this one is still the worst. When your company is created, it gets put (almost randomly) in one of three data centres (the US, Europe or Asia). This would be fine except that communication can’t happen between the data centres.  That’s right, people in the US can’t communicate with people in Asia.  For a platform based on collaboration, blocking messaging is a big, big mistake.

On-boarding a Person

The on-boarding process for a user is much better. It’s a bit wordy and “disclaimery” and a bit disjointed too but I would have said it was pretty good - if I hadn't seen the Yammer on-boarding process.  The two big flaws with personal on-boarding are;


  • Single-Emails: If you've already used your email address somewhere else in connections, for example at one of the other data centres, then it’s “dead”. It’s tied to that data centre and as mentioned previously, there’s no communication between data centres. This might be fine if you have a single organisation collaborating together but if you’re an association which collects members and guests from other organisations around the world, it makes business impossible. 


  • A lack of Wizardry: The Yammer on-boarding process used some very slick screens to navigate the new user through setting up their account, joining companies, adding friends, setting up their profile and introducing the system.  The IBM on-boarding process simply dumps the user in connections in the hope that they’ll figure out where to go to from there. 


Friends and @Mentions

This was bit that “broke” the system for our people.  They presumed that that, as with most social platforms, they could add guests and then draw their attention via @Mentions.  This works extremely well within companies, so clearly there’s no technical problem with the @Mention system itself.

Unfortunately, without some very, very painful user-based processes, you can’t @Mention anyone who is not a member of your company.  You can’t @Mention guests even though they are members of your community.

The Worst Friend-Request System Ever

In order to @Mention a guest, you need to “Friend Request” them first. Then they have to accept. This might not be so bad but the Friend Request system is absolutely terrible. In order to Friend Request someone, you need to go into your personal contacts and add the person manually to your contacts. To do this, you need to type in at least their name and email address. If you don’t know which email address they’re using for connections, then you can’t add them.

Once people are added to your contacts list, you then need to go in and individually send them “invitations to connect”, and then you have to wait for them to accept.  By this time, your requirement to @mention them has pretty much expired.

Of course, I found a way to upload a CSV file which takes a little of the pain out of the first part of the process but considering that Microsoft’s Yammer lets you talk directly to members in your community without any further action, I think it’s too little, too late.

Broken by Design

The worst part about this however is that it was apparently “broken by design”.  The earlier versions of IBM connections.cloud were far more open and for legal or other reasons, those loopholes were closed. This means that there is no technical reason why the system couldn't be better.  It also means that because the “holes” were clumsily closed, the system tends to go to horrible error-message screens when you hit parts of the old functionality.

This is simply a very bad choice of reaction from IBM. A much better choice would be to change the person profiles so that you could have a choice of;


  • A community-public edge to your profile (ie visible to all - @mentions within shared communities without needing explicit friendships)
  • A completely hidden to all profile (ie: the current friend request system)
  • A list of Trusted domains or companies (ie: @mentions restricted to domains/companies and profiles visible to certain domains/companies only).


All existing Connections.cloud profiles should default to “completely hidden” and all members of the community should be sent a message explaining the differences and how to change it. This would fix the problems in the current system.  From there, all new users could be asked to make the choice as part of the user on-boarding process. The default setting could be set at the company level too.

It’s a simple fix that IBM needs to implement ASAP.


The Capabilities of Guests

One of the most important features of IBM Connections is the Guest System.  The idea that you can invite a guest to connections in order to exchange files with you or participate in your communities.

Apart from the guest problems I've discussed earlier;

  • A sloppy on-boarding process 
  • Inability to invite guests if their email has been used at another data centre
  • Inability to @mention guests without completing a process too complex for new users


There’s also a few other issues;

Lack of Status Updates

One of the first things I noticed about Yammer was that guests have a status update bar. That’s right, guests can post updates (which can include @mentions and hashtags).  In fact, Yammer encourages guests to introduce themselves when they are added to a community. Connections on the other hand does not allow guests to post status updates.


No Collaborative Document Editing for Guests

Then there’s collaborative document editing. If you’re a fully paid subscriber of IBM Connections, you can edit documents using the built in “IBM Docs” editor.  It’s not a particularly good editor, not compared to Office 365 online or the even better (in my opinion) Google Docs but it does the trick.

Unfortunately, if you’re a guest, you are denied the use of these tools and have to download documents, edit them and then re-upload them.

Initially I was okay with this but then I looked a Yammer. Yammer lets people use the online versions of Office 365

Really?  If Microsoft can run their flagship cash-cow product on a freemium model for Yammer users then IBM must be able to offer IBM Docs to guests. In a world full of free apps (thank you Google Docs) and quality open source alternatives (thank you Libre Office), who pays for the bare essentials of content creation these days?

This is simply unacceptable. 

The Outline Screen and Clutter

The last major flaw of IBM Connections.cloud is, in my opinion, the outline screen. As I said before, connections is far more fully-featured than any of the competing systems. It has great sub-systems like wiki’s, blogs, surveys and activities … and it seems that new modules are coming all the time.

There’s nothing really wrong with these options. It’s all a matter of the outline screen.

The focal point of any community is its start page and in IBM connections, you can choose from several options for the start page. The Wiki is offered as an option but it’s restricted to the welcome page -- and you can’t have any “side apps”, such as tags and calendars.

The outline page is really the best start page of the lot. Unfortunately, there are a few major flaws;


Graphics can't be Directly Added to Outlines

Despite years of badgering (I've read the forums), you can’t add graphics to the outline, at least not directly. You have to upload them to the Wiki (or files if you enjoy lots of broadcasts) and then link to them from there. Since the rest of connections seems to support uploads, it makes no sense why the one part that would benefit from this feature misses out.

All Components (except updates) Must be Shown on the Outline

If you decide to have a component in your community, for example a survey or a wiki, then you MUST show it on the outline screen -- even if it’s not relevant at the time. You can collapse these items to start with but they still expand for new users.  There’s an option to “hide” these items but hiding them essentially removes them from your community. If you’re going to use the outline screen, you’re going to have to get used to clutter.

Compare this to the Yammer screens, they’re calm, clean and easily navigable. 

Community Status Updates Cannot be shown on the Outline

You can’t include community status updates on the outline screen. This is pretty amazing, as one of the most important things about any community is the status updates.  You’d think that the outline layout which introduces far too much clutter would at least be all-inclusive but it’s not. Status updates are simply not available there. It’s a shame because people have been asking for them too, for years, in the IBM forums.

No HTML in the Outline

If there's one part of Community that would benefit from HTML, it's the outline page. This would allow you to integrate your own systems (via iFrames and other devices) and it would allow you to use widgets from other sources. More importantly, having HTML would allow you a lot more control over the layout of the outline.

Where to Now?

I really can’t be sure where we are going now.  For a while there I was so sure that our future was going to be IBM Connections but it’s really not looking like the product will meet our needs. It’s a big decision to make because it won’t just affect connections going forward. It will affect all of our systems, our domino systems, the intended move to bluemix and our xpages development plans.

If nothing else, I’m at least reassured. If we lose IBM now, it won’t be for lack of trying and it won’t be because people made an emotional decision to go to Microsoft.  It will simply be that IBM has “mismanaged” themselves into delivering a sub-par set of rules around an otherwise quality product.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Chrome Remote Desktop - A Better VPN and RDP Solution

About Chrome Remote Desktop

Remote desktop is one of the great ways to access data from offsite because it not only gives you access to your data, it also gives you access to your applications. So, if you've got applications which you don't have at home, on your laptop, phone, android or ipad, then remote desktop is the answer.

Unfortunately, the key to remote desktop is (usually) having a good VPN.  VPNs rely upon infrastructure and they need to be secure. For example PPTP VPNs are so insecure that they typically last under a minute in the wild.

The more secure VPNs, like Shrew, are more robust but offer little compatibility for other types of devices, like Macs, iOS, Linux and Android.

There's a few good point to point remote desktop solutions about though and these don't need a VPN. Even better, some, like the Google Chrome Remote Desktop are constantly being updated (as if simply being "free" wasn't good enough.

The other thing that I like about Chrome Remote Desktop is that it has three factor authentication;

  • You have to be logged into your Google Account in order to see the remote PC
  • You have to enter a pin number
  • You have to enter the password for the PC or Domain.

Sure, there are some limitations, such as sloppy copy and paste between the systems, some less than intuitive controls and some refresh delays but overall it's a quick and easy way to get a remote session going.

Getting Chrome Remote Desktop

To get Chrome remote desktop, use the Chrome Browser and browse  to the Chrome Web Store. Type in Chrome Remote Desktop and it should be the first item you see.  Click Add to Chrome and follow the prompts.

You'll want to install it on the computer to be controlled AND the computer you'll be controlling from. If you're using a phone or a tablet, you'll want to get it from the relevant App Store or Google Play store.

Enabling Your Computer for Remote Desktop

On the computer to be controlled, click on the Google Apps Bar.  If you have a lot of apps, you might have to do some scrolling.

Locate the Chrome Remote Desktop App and choose it.

It will open to a dialog screen.

If you're doing a one-off share, perhaps helping a family member, then you should teach them to get to that screen and click Share this computer.  They'll be able to do a temporary share (it will generate a pin and ask the remote user to enter it).

For a permanent share, you need to put your own pin in. I'd suggest that it should be more than 4 digits long.




Enabling Curtain Mode

One of the troubling things about Chrome Remote Desktop is that by default it shows your screen to others while you are working. This is by design because it's primarily an instructional screen-sharing tool.

One your home computer, this probably doesn't matter.  In fact, you're probably using C.R.D. to help the less computer literate members of your family.  In the workplace however, this is a different matter altogether.

In order to use Chrome Remote desktop in the workplace, you really need to enable "Curtain Mode". Unfortunately the instructions for this aren't very clear -- hence this post.

First of all you'll need admin rights to your Windows computer.

Next, fire up the Registry editor (if you don't know that you can click Start, Run  and type Regedit, then maybe you shouldn't be in the registry -- it's a dangerous place to be).

Navigate to: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Google\Chrome

Chances are, you won't find it. In fact, you'll probably only get as far as

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies

That's okay.  We can create it from there.


Right-click on Policies and Choose New, Key.  Name the Google (and press Enter).
You now have a Google Key.

Click on the Google Key.
Right-click on the Google Key and choose New, Key.  Name the new key Chrome (and press Enter).
Now we need to create the DWORD Value. 


Find some space in the right hand pane and right click on it.
Choose New, DWORD Value.
If you're running on a 64 bit system, it will probably say DWORD (32-bit) Value.

This creates a new value.
Name it.  RemoteAccessHostRequireCurtain

Now, double-click on the new DWORD value and a dialog box will appear.
Type 1 as the value and click Okay.

Now, you'll just need to reboot your machine and it should all work.




Friday, March 11, 2016

Buy... or Die Trying - An IBM Connections Story

You simply have to get IBM connections cloud. It's not only the "best of its breed" but it also has some very impressive licensing structures. It's not a choice of whether or not, simply a choice of when.

I'll elaborate on those words in another post because I desperately want to get back to telling the positive stories about IBM but for now, the message is simply “I am convinced”.

Let's buy this baby!
A few posts ago, I went through the Google Apps for Work setup. Google have a pretty impressive cloud product too… In fact, I'd say that if you're running a very small business - or if you're looking for a system for an individual, then Google is your system.

I was particularly impressed with Google's "New Company Setup" process which took half an hour. Of course if I wasn't documenting every step, it would have been 10 minutes.

I wanted to prove that IBM could compete at that level, that you can set up connections cloud without needing a business partner. I tried. I really did…  but now I have to admit defeat....


The IBM Connections.Cloud product is simply brilliant and the licensing is brilliant too but the registration and setup is still very much done according to IBM’s old standards. Right now I'm committed but waiting for things to find their way out of the trail of paper forms.

Choose Your Site 
I started trying to explain the site part of this problem but the explanations became so convoluted that they grew into a post of their own (See here for details).

The online form for connections cloud has some pretty major holes in it to say the least. For a start, there's no explanation of the two data centers and no way to select one over the other.

I contacted IBM and was told to place the order and then get the receipt number and send an email to the connections cloud team stating my preference.

Someone without a direct IBM contact would have come unstuck at that point. 

The other thing about this bizarre scenario is that you have to hope that they open the email and act on it before creating the connections environment.

What we, Wanted.... did .... and Got
In my case, my company (A) was setting up a smaller company (B) to do specific work with a high likelihood of the new company (B) eventually splitting off to operate entirely without the parent company. As such, company (B) wasn't a real company yet... but there was no sense in creating it as part of company (A) given that it would probably split.

I put the new company name on the form and used an email address from our current domain being careful to use one that wasn't already in connections - at least I didn't think I had used it in connections before,  though I knew that it had been used on passport advantage.

I put the new system on the company card and then emailed the team as instructed and explained the situation in the email.

When nothing happened we followed up with IBM (because they didn't contact us).  It turns out that they completely ignored the company name at the top of the form because I used an email address which was known to the passport advantage system.  Instead of a new environment, we got one extra licence added to our existing account.


On the second attempt, we used a business partner. After a few initial problems, IBM initially refused to create a new company because our “fledgling” company didn't have an ABN (Australian Business Number), our business partner filled the forms in and liaised with IBM. This resulted in a new company being set up under the right name… but on the wrong server.

Being Upfront 
One of the problems with this whole approach is that IBM change you upfront for the licensing, where in a traditional model you can force a supplier to “get it right” before handing over the money. I can't really blame IBM for this because this is the "internet model for service".

I would point out however that Google doesn't do this. They give you the first month free so that by the time you do get charged, you've been happily working on your new environment for a month. It's a good feeling and one that IBM would do well to try to replicate in their own customer base. 

In my case I was lucky because I only wanted to start with a single license. I wonder what would have happened if we'd bought a hundred.. Twice.

The Current Status 
In case you're wondering,  the current status of this request is that after 2 weeks,  we still don't have a license.  I have people at work putting pressure on me for not having built a system that I don't have the keys to yet but I'm hopeful that IBM will pull through on this eventually. I've still got 24 hours before I reach the deadline for delivering the project.

It's clear that IBM still has a lot of work to do on the new company part of the Connections.Cloud registration system. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Explaining the Limitations of IBM Connections.Cloud Global Signon

I've mentioned this in passing before but it's important enough to be worth reiterating in a post of its own. In my opinion, it is the single technical failing of IBM connections.Cloud and the one technical issue I want to see resolved ASAP.



There are currently two sites that you can choose to host your IBM Connections.Cloud data in; the United States and Japan (there might be a third site but I'm not sure, so I'll be sticking with the two for now). You can only use your email address for connections once in the world and it limits the people that you can invite to your communities.

For example, say you didn't know about the two sites and you (Bill) just went through the default setup, your data would end up in the American data centre. Then say, Fred, who works at a more legally minded company decides that his data can’t be on American servers 



The Problem
In any case, Bill is now set up on the American server and he has a nice little community going. He decides to invite his friends, Bob, Jane and Fred. 

  • Bob is already set up on the American server because he’s part of another community there, so his existing password just lets him access Bill’s shared content.


  • Jane has never used connections, so she’s now invited to set up a FREE new account. She does this and then suddenly she’s got access..


  • Fred however, can’t be invited. He’s already a member of connections. You’d think that he could login using his existing credentials and access Bill’s systems but he can’t.  People on the Japanese server can’t see data on the American… and vice versa.



This also means that if Fred creates a community then he can’t invite Bill, Bob or Jane. Unless they use a different email address.


Moving
In our case, being in Australia, you'd think that the solution would be for the newer communities to move to our region. We asked IBM about this but it turns out that moving is not a simple matter. In fact, the recommendation was to set up again instead.

The reason for this is fairly obvious if you think about it. If the connections server farms are closed environments then moving would break any comments, shares and discussions that you've had with other people in your "previous" region.

Moving is clearly not an option.

Setting up Two Sites
Setting up two sites is a much better option, so let's presume that Bill is an Australian who wants to engage Australian businesses. Bill wants to set up a second site.

Then there's the hurdles of setting up a second site where IBM expects a different domain name (more on that in another post), for simplicity, let's assume that Bill creates a new second site with a different email address.

Bill can now recreate his community on the Japanese server and engage Australian Businesses. Of course, while he can now engage Fred, he's no longer able to engage Bob and Jane because they're on the US server.

Bill now has a problem where he has two communities and no way to replicate data between them, other than manual intervention.

Where to from here?
I was going to go into detail and explain why simply moving users by letting them expire would still not fix the problem but I think it's fairly obvious (and tedious). Even if you let the licensing expire in the US and then tried to create the users on the Japanese server, you'd still face the problem of not being able to use the same email address and the loss of "historical data", such as likes, comments and even Verse emails.

I can see why IBM have done made the choices that they have. It’s a way of getting around the "fear factor" of the patriot act but unfortunately, it breaks connections. What connections needs more than anything else is a "connection" between their data centers... and with the Australian data center (and presumably a few others) looming on the horizon, it's clear that they need to resolve this problem quickly.

Google has perfected global single sign-on so I don’t see any reason why IBM shouldn't too. 

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Notes/Domino is Dead, Long Live NoSQL/Domino!

I was having a conversation recently and there was a couple with no kids who were annoyed that their friends were saying “the club scene is back!” when in their mind, it had never left.  They pointed out that it was the other couples who’d left the scene to raise children and that now that those kids were old enough to stay home on their own, they were able to return to the club scene. It was not “back”, THEY were back.

It’s like the concept of object permanence doesn't apply. People assume that things are long gone, simply because they personally are no longer using them.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard IBM Domino pronounced “dead” over the years and yet it keeps going. People move to all-Microsoft companies and then they start at ours and say "I thought Notes was dead."

No, it's not dead... in fact, we’re still developing in it now and its future today is much more assured than it was five years ago. 

The fact is that the model still works. The access controls on domino databases (nested groupings, database access controls, reader and author fields) run rings around most other systems. Sure, the user interface is "clunky" at best but the model still works very well indeed. Even IBM Connections, the most likely successor has far less functionality and much more inflexible security than domino. Connections is good but it's never going to be a complete replacement.

A State of Change
Over the years, there have been a few half-hearted attempts to re-skin the interface (Notes 7 and 8) or to produce "lightweight" versions of it (iNotes and the Firefox plugin). These have inspired developers to produces equally half-hearted attempts at porting apps to the web - and I've seen some shockers.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I've been responsible for more than a few of those "shockers".

There have also been many attempts to replace the system with other "prettier" ones, like Websphere and Workplace but for the most part, these were slightly less clunky interfaces built in far less capable models. In fact those systems did far more damage to Notes/Domino than the competitors ever did.

To everyone’s surprise, of all the interfaces, it was Traveler that caught the imagination. IBM jumped off the Blackberry ship at exactly the right time.  Far enough in front of the iceberg that by the time Blackberry was sinking, most of us had a pretty effective upgrade path.

It's no exaggeration to say that Traveler almost single-handedly decided IBM's current path.... Mobile FIRST!

Then there’s Verse, IBM’s revamped mail which simply couldn't get here fast enough. If you haven’t tried it, you really ought to. It’s great.  There’s still a lot of features missing but it’s getting there.

What’s really funny is that people at work are pushing me to get them off that old clunky mail system and onto Verse. I no longer try to explain that they’re the same thing, I think that the rebranding is a very good move.

Speaking of rebranding, I've noticed that IBM is increasingly referring to Domino as "NoSQL". That's what they seem to be calling it on Bluemix.



I can remember having to write papers to justify building databases on Non SQL platforms. I explained that SQL is only good for certain types of data.  It was hard work and everyone was focussed on this “newfangled SQL”…. until finally I mentioned that SQL was in fact invented by Edgar Codd of IBM back in 1970. It wasn't “newfangled” and it certainly wasn't "Microsoft’s idea".

Finally, Finally!!! IBM is getting it.  The Notes client is dead. It’s fine as a development tool but it’s dead as a user tool.  The engine is still Domino NoSQL and the future is web and apps.