Staffordshire Oatcakes

One thing I neglected to include in my post about travels to the Midlands were the culinary aspects. Anyone who has family in different parts of the country can usually think of one or two local delicacies that aren’t available nationally. And when you are reacquainted with these foods, you can conjour up the fond memories associated with them.

In this case it is Staffordshire Oatcakes, thankfully stocked by the local Morrisons in Newcastle Under Lyme. For those of you unacquainted with them, they are about 25 cm in diameter, round soft pancake like things. And yes, for those familiar with the Scottish Oatcake, they are nothing like them. They do, however, have oatmeal as an ingredient.

I eat them at home tonight, bringing back memories of my late Grandfather, and childhood holidays in Cheadle, Staffs.

Other local delicacies I could recommend to the reader are Aberdeen Butteries, and Carlton Bakeries Fudge Doughnuts, yum.

Where is Commerce Server going?

I was attempting to pull together a “master” list for my CV the other day. The company that I work for relies heavily on them for the bidding process, so compiling and keeping them up to date is a necessary thing. That process of rediscovery reignited thoughts of my experiences with Microsoft Commerce Server.

And hot off the heels of his visit to the PDC, Spence posts a history, perspective and view of where Commerce Server is going.

Frankly, until reading Spence’s article reminded me, I’d forgotten about the Merchant Server heritage. As his post describes, Site Server introduced a michmash of products, with its inherant nightmare of licencing and installation. Rolling forward to the last PDC, which I was priviledged to attend under the old Cedalion banner, nothing at all was said about Content Management Server, Commerce, MSIB, whatever. The only inference from the introductions to .NET 2.0 was that the mixed feature bag spread over the MSIB products was going through another Microsoft checkpoint, and the essential bits being pushed down to become standard platform features.

Roll on another few years, and release date realities mean that we see what is actually going to appear in .NET 2.0 with regards to identification, personalisation etc. But back to my title, Commerce is still out there on a limb and is likely to do so for a while, which in some ways is a shame. It is a shame because learning how to work with it can be a real pain, and consistency in the other Internet products just exascerbates that. On the other hand, it is a relief that all that investment getting the most out of Commerce features will still pay off.

I’ll study the materials out there on Commerce 2006 and I’ll post again if I think I have been talking Baloney, or form some other opinions.

Family Wedding Weekend

The family and I are just back from a family wedding, congratulations to my cousin Joseph and to Carly.

My mum’s side of the family are originally from Staffordshire, and with families growing up and moving around, I now have relatives in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire.

We spent the weekend staying at a hotel in Newcastle Under Lyme, and being as I needed the car to get around on the weekend, drove there on Friday. The run down the M6 was fine, and I ran a one-stop strategy, stopping at the Westmorland services on the way down, with a very brief stop to buy new maps when we got to Newcastle.

The wedding itself was in the Leicester area, in a place called Blaby. Call me untravelled, but I find it fascinating to go places that I have never heard of that have councils and everything! The drive there was also pretty straightforward, passing such esteemed landmarks as Castle Donington and East Midlands Airport. And the wedding was nice, small and informal.

The rest of the weekend was spent chilling out, using the pool at the hotel, and doing nothing much really. Popped in to see my Gran before we headed North, and had a visit to DK Motorcycles. Both good visits, my Gran’s new place is really nice, and DK has a massive stock of used bikes and has a resident Parrot.

The chap we spoke to at DK was friendly, talking about the bikes we liked and mentioning some of their stats. They sell over a 100 bikes a week, 5 the previous week going in their van to Scotland. He’d just sold a new bike to a chap in Aberdeen, and it was going up in the van next week. Their stock must run to a hundreds of bikes, so plenty to choose from. And the parrot was friendly too, it kept shouting hello at us from its vantage point above one of the offices, a local too going by its accent! They had a really nice BMW R1100RS in red, so I’m going to keep saving up.

We then headed North, with a brief detour to pick up my Brother’s new size 13 Doc Martin boots that he’d left at the hotel he was staying in.

Classic ASP and steam driven web apps

Kevin’s recent post about the pain of ASP reminded me to post about a recent system rebuild I had to do recently. I had to get a line of business application up and running, with data backup only and a new clean hard disk.

The application concerned is part of company history where I work, was created many many years ago by the founding director and the small team of developers that made up the company at the time. Well, history is history and he and the original devs are distant memories for those of us still around.

The application could be described as a special stock control system, not for car parts but for a section of a financial service that has to be strictly controlled. At the time it was conceived, the architecture was designed with the latest Microsoft Web technologies, bundled together under the excellent name of the NT 4.0 Option Pack. This included Microsoft Transaction Server and IIS 4.0. (The download page cracked me up – remember when Microsoft Servers supported intel and alpha?)

The application itself in total uses NT 4.0 Server, IIS 4.0 (Active Server Pages), Microsoft Transaction Server to look after the VB5.0 middle tier component, SQL 6.5 looking after the data side of things and a service written in C++, listening on a named pipe for print commands.

The application has “history” everywhere you look. For one thing, it comes with a support contract that has held since the application went in to production. This provides challenges when naturally the developers these days are all C#, ASP.NET, all gearing up for 2.0 of course and would probably start a wee headache having to work with VBScript. I’m just glad off the back of that that the two compiled parts of the application have remained intact, I’d hate to have to recompile with those tools.

For those of you who haven’t had to deal with these things, this means that you have to fix an application written by someone else in a technology you haven’t used for 5 years. That is if you were working 5 years ago!

Another part of the history is that the system is now only single user. We have a classic web application; IIS, Middle Component, and DB  all sitting on one server, the same machine that the user now sits down to. And to call it a server is going a bit far, it runs on an old Compaq desktop with a tape drive. A machine so old that getting parts is a nightmare, and the new RAM it recently got was cannibalised from other old machines failing. Although the architecture is over-engineered for a single user, it was an excellent opportunity at the time to explore the technology, and the original plans involved several users accessing the web application over the network. The web setup also gave opportunity for the customers of the company involved to access the application directly, giving an element of self service. Unfortunately the great plans didn’t come together, and quite terminally. I’m not sure of the exact reasons, but the application isn’t even allowed on the network, so it now sits on its own chugging away.

The rebuild was interesting. For one thing it was a hunt in the office to track down the base CDs, NT4.0 Server, NT 4.0 Option Pack, and SQL 6.5. You tend to hit daft stuff like boot problems etc when working with the combination of an old machine and old o/s. I ended up building the three boot floppies for NT, and working from there. I found the cd-writer on my laptop was a godsend, moving the various service packs and application parts on to that was excellent. I found to my disappointment that there was only a token-ring card in the machine, so no use in these days of Gigabit ethernet!

Thank goodness I had taken copies of the application files a few years ago when the disk had been flaky, these could be recopied back on to the machine and the rest was configuration and dependencies. I found the two and half days getting it back was a mix of triumph and disappointment, but I got it done. It developed into a three hour cycle of problem discovery and fix. It was a good opportunity to ponder the improvement in Microsoft software over the years. The installation of the NT Option pack wouldn’t complete properly and it was the old technique of applying the latest service pack that got it working. I’d forgotten how challenging NT4 could be straight out of the box, it wasn’t just all those install / deinstall cycles that fragged things.

The rest was ok when you knew the idiosyncrasies of the various bits. There was an old setup wizard package with the dependent rdo files packaged with the component, so that was the only way of getting the VB component on and working. Then I deregistered that and put a newer version on. Adding a service is harder than it looks, in the end I found that the registration routine was part of the executable itself. Otherwise, you are relying on the NT4.0 resource kit to give you the “add a service” command line util. Then a small tweak to make sure the service account was correct.

So, got the app together in the end, restored the tape backup and then bang – the application onsite hit an update problem. Cue some major head scratching. I couldn’t get onsite due to other committments, so cue a session in front of my laptop with the source code out of sourcesafe, mobile phone on and bluetooth headset stuck in my left ear.

We were getting a javascript error on an update. That happened after hitting a button above a blank screen. Quick look at the code, put in some rubbish to kick the validation in to check the code was running, and the right error message came up, so it wasn’t that. The blank screen is a clue of course, so do a “view source” in IE 4.0 to see if the page really is blank. There was the error, not coming through to the browser because it wasn’t valid html. This indicated a syntax problem in an ADO update. The update involved a table with a date column – incorrectly formatted date. Check the locale – US English – drat! The date formatting in VBScript is pretty rudimentary, coming down to either long or short, and wholly dependent on the context. You can get really twisted up working from ASP through the layers trying to establish the locale, and in the old days used to try to write my own functions to get round any internationalisation issues. Thank goodness this is taken on properly in .NET and is also considered appropriately in the development process. So the fix on the box was to change the system locale to UK English, but doing that needs the system CD – on the other side of Scotland.

Hats off to the chap who was onsite and on the other end of the phone who made arrangements to get the CD, but another reminder from him, copy the system CABs on to the machine concerned, for daft stuff like that, and also recent service packs. The recent OSs are a lot better, but system guys are a lot better at remembering the field practice like that.

So, application running again, support contract still going, but I now know how to rebuild the thing. Phew, time for a rest.

AlistairL and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Watching the various episodes of American Chopper and A Bike is Born got me back to the olden days when I used to fart about under the bonnet of my MK1 Fiesta.

A project at work a few years ago brought me into contact with Learn Direct Scotland, and I ran a search on motorcycle stuff. This brought up a few courses ranging from training for a licence (already done that) to varying levels of motorcycle maintenance courses.

And there it was, a Leisure course in Motorcycle Maintenance at Motherwell College, the nearest to where I live, though still a 40 minute drive away. Basic repair and maintenance of the main components, nothing about Zen philosophy. Looked good to me. So I send off an email and waited for the reply. No course in September, not enough interest.

Drat, I now have to wait till October with the new prospectus to see if they attempt the course again in January.

Catch up in the world of AlistairL

The frequency of my blog posting tends to follow the ebbs and flows of my life. I certainly find it harder to notice the topics that fascinate me enough to blog them when I am under stress or a bit down.

I’ve also had a couple of weeks holiday during August, and I deliberately tried to chill out and read books and go out instead of random surfing on the PC, and to an extend I succeeded. We only managed to get away for a couple of days, not really enough for me to detach my brain from the daily issues. I really enjoyed aspects of our break though. Taking the family with me (of course!) I drove to Aviemore to try out the Cairngorm Railway. The view from the car park there was excellent, unfortunately low cloud meant that I couldn’t say the same about the view from the top!

The drive up the A9 is an excellent illustration of the range of scenery that is accessible from most of Scotland. Within two hours or so from our start in the Central Belt, we had everything from the farmland of Fife around Kinross, to the valley round Strathearn. Perth is nice in its own right, then the beatiful scenery leading up to and beyond Pitlochry with the tree cover and hills. Then the bleak moorland on the lead up to Aviemore. A bit tricky to record when driving the car, but a delight to see.

We rode the funicular railway, had something to eat the cafe, and headed down. The plan then took us for an overnight stay in Aberdeen. Unfortunately I took a wrong turning and the route was lengthened somewhat by including Inverness.

Playing my old trick of making familiar places interesting, we discovered the beach at Aberdeen, which was a delight (and we ignored the minor threats of wildlife and radiation). Travelling down the east coast took us to Stonehaven, where we’ve been before but this time treated ourselves to a Fish Tea at the Bervie Chipper. Very nice, if you can get over the coach party feeling – those senior citizens know a good thing when they find it.

The rest of the two weeks was spent chilling out, growing my beard and fixing one or two things.

The return to work has been really stressful, but also really excellent in other ways. Sometimes making certain that things get sorted out can feel quite painful at the time, but in the light of day are the best thing to do. I’m still smarting a bit from that one, though, and the stress took its usual toll on my health.