Monthly Archives: November 2011

Europa, We Should Attempt Landings There.

Carl Sagan is quote as saying that “life looks for life”. Indeed if our own history is anything to go by we’re in a constant state of searching out other forms of life and just recently we’ve extended that search beyond the confines of the world that gave rise to us. So far our search beyond our home world has proved fruitless as we’ve been unable to find any direct indications of life on any other heavenly body that’s within our reach. Thus we find Earth in what appears to be some great isolation which is a somewhat disconcerting notion given the age of the universe and the number of potential habitable planets in our galactic backyard. We should not be discouraged however as our quest to find life elsewhere is only just beginning.

Of all the other heavenly bodies that inhabit our solar system there’s one that stands out as the best candidate for housing life. Now if I was to ask the question of which body it was most people would respond with Mars as it’s the only planet that resembles Earth in some fashion, with the next closest candidate being the raging hell of Venus. It’s not a bad guess either as we’ve proven several times over that there was once vast amounts of water there and there’s still a very good chance there’s liquid water present today. However Mars is a very inhospitable place so much so that the best hope for life there is nothing above microbial and even that seems like a far reaching prospect.

Europa on the other hand is quite the curiosity. As far as moons go it really is something out of left field being a striking combination of bright whites and browns. It’s surface is also one of the smoothest in the solar system thanks to it being made almost entirely of water ice. That doesn’t mean it’s featureless however as the entire surface is criss-crossed with fracture lines from the giant ice sheet breaking apart and reforming. Many have speculated that this is because the surface actually lies on top of a giant subsurface ocean and when cracks form the ocean rushes up to fill it, forming the characteristic lines. It’s this undersea ocean that makes Europa one of the best candidates for life forming outside of Earth and recent studies show it just got a little better.

The potential ocean on Europa would be some 3KM below the surface, quite a ways away from any direct sunlight or other potential energy sources. It’s theorized then that the ocean is kept liquid by the tidal flexing that Europa undergoes every time it orbits Jupiter which could also drive the same kinds of volcanism processes that gives rise to life in the depths of our oceans. However recent research shows that there’s potential for some subsurface lakes that are much closer to the surface than the great ocean below. These lakes would have a higher rate of churn between water and ice providing a much a habitat that’d be more nutrient rich and hopefully more hospitable to life. Of both these recently modelled oceans and the great subsurface ocean haven’t yet been conclusively proven, but that just makes Europa a really tantalizing target for exploration.

Quite a few missions have swung past Europa already with the most detailed analysis being done by the Galileo craft from 1995 to 2003. However we haven’t been back there recently save for a short flyby by the New Horizons craft that imaged it on its way to Pluto. If we were to go back there my favourite mission candidate would be the Crybot style mission. In essence it’s a probe that’s fitted with a giant heater on the front of it, capable of plunging through several kilometres of ice. Once it broke through it would then deploy a small autonomous underwater vehicle that could investigate the subsurface ocean. This mission hasn’t got past the back of the napkin style planning stages yet, but I’m hopeful that we’ll one day attempt such a mission.

Europa is a curiosity unlike any other in our solar system and there’s so much we could learn from it if we were to send a mission there. Whilst the environment there isn’t really human friendly (the radiation at the surface is quite large, about 450 chest x-rays a day worth) it’s definitely within our current capabilities of robotic exploration. I know that one day we’ll see a dedicate mission there but until then I’m quite content to continue fantasizing about the undersea world that it contains and the tantalizing possibility that as of yet unknown life forms exist there.

A Little Hump Day Serenity: International Space Station Time Lapse.

I’ve seen my fair share of pictures and videos of earth in the past but none of them have been quite as captivating as this one by Michael König:

Hopefully that will be enough serenity to get you through the rest of the working day 🙂

(I’ve decided that instead of my usual 500+ word crap post that I’d churn out when I can’t find anything good to write about I’d instead just post something short that I found interesting. Those kinds of posts are mentally exhausting and I don’t particularly like them afterwards. At least I can’t be mad at something as beautiful as this!) 

Unity and Windows Phone 7: Microsoft’s Short Sightedness Damages Their Platform.

Cross platform development is one of those things that I’ve seen done dozens of times before but rarely do I see anyone get it right. I understand the allure of doing so, heck my most creative forms of procrastination came from experimenting with these ideas, but the fact remains that more often than not they’re going to be a total waste of your time. I do have one exception to this rule however and that comes in the form of the cross-platform game engine Unity. Where other libraries promise compatibility and a wide range of functions Unity actually delivers on these with little compromise. Couple that with their ridiculously good pricing model and awesome dev environment and it’s hard to fault the product. Indeed all the shortcomings I found were, as far as I could tell, limitations of my programming expertise.

For games developers Unity offers the chance to have one code base for all platforms with only minor tweaking required once you want to deploy the project to your chosen platform. This is great because initially you can focus on one platform and then once you’ve verified your product there it doesn’t take much to port it to the new platform. It’s no surprise then that you’ll find many Unity based games in both the Apple and Android app stores. Figuring that Unity was going for all round platform domination I thought it was only a matter of time before I saw that the library would support Windows Phone 7, even though it’s still in its nascent stages.

As it turns out however that won’t be happening:

The Unity engine does not support Windows Phone 7 because of restrictions placed on Microsoft’s mobile, the CEO of Unity Technologies has said.

“But we’re looking at Windows Phone 8 and hopefully it will be easier to work on that system,” he said.

In an interview with Develop, to be published soon, Helgason explained Windows Phone 7 “is a relatively closed system so you can’t run native content, which means we can’t really support it”.

The “closed” nature that David Helgason (CEO of Unity) is referring to is the fact that if you want to put a game on the Windows Phone 7 platform you need to have coded it in either Silverlight or Microsoft’s XNA framework. Unity then approached Microsoft to see if they could get an exemption from this rule (as well as access to some private APIs which would be required for their libraries to work) however Microsoft turned them down. This means that Unity and all the games built on top of it are banned from being released on this platform, save for a full rewrite of the code. In response Unity has turned their sites towards Windows 8 which will be a lot more friendly for them thanks to the WinRT framework

This feels like a pretty big misstep from Microsoft. Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been gaining any momentum and it’s overall smart phone market share (that includes Windows Mobile devices) has been taking quite the battering dropping to a low of 1.6%. Whilst I won’t go as far to say that Unity would be its saving grace it definitely wouldn’t hurt to have that available as an option for games developers looking to develop for the Windows Phone 7 platform. Indeed since Unity supports coding in C# I’d hazard a guess that there would be quite a few who’d be willing to give it a shot just because it would be easy for them to learn. Heck I know I did.

In reality Windows Phone 7 has a lot of other hurdle to overcome before it can be considered a serious competitor in the market but Microsoft can’t afford to throw away any potential advantage it can get. Not working with Unity only serves to damage the Windows Phone 7 platform as it has demonstrated success on every platform it’s available on. Unity developers then may have to wait for Windows 8 and the corresponding Windows Phone release before they can think about coming across onto Microsoft’s platform but I feel that may be too far off, and the damage has already been done.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3: A Spectacle Like No Other.

As game releases goes it doesn’t get much bigger than the Call of Duty series. The most recent instalment in the series, Modern Warfare 3, was released just last week and has already sold a whopping 6.5 million copies. That number doesn’t include sales outside of the USA or the UK and even that’s enough to make Modern Warfare 3 the biggest entertainment release of all time across any medium. Considering that Modern Warfare 3’s predecessors also set records of similar calibre in their time it should come as no surprise that they were able to do it once again. The question remains though are those sales figures indicative of something innate about Modern Warfare 3 (I.E. is it actually a good game) or merely a product of solid marketing? For the first time on The Refined Geek I was sent a copy of this game to review and I’ve spent the past week diligently doing so. 

Modern Warfare 3 drops you hours after the events that unfolded in Modern Warfare 2 with Soap slowly dying whilst you, playing as one of Nikolai’s best soldiers Yuri, attempt to help save him. Meanwhile World War 3 is still continuing and you’ll then play as Frost one of the members of Delta Squad who’s been charged with driving the Russians out of New York by using one of their own attack subs against them. Throughout the single player campaign you’ll switch between Frost, Yuri and (towards the end) Price as you play out different parts of the larger story arc.

Now I’ll be honest here, when I reviewed Battlefield 3 a week ago I criticised its single player for being tedious but I couldn’t shake the feeling in the back of my head that I’d been overly harsh on it. For the most part I figure that was because I was expecting too much for the single player when at its heart Battlefield 3 is a multiplayer game just like Modern Warfare 3 is. However the differences between the two games single player campaigns could not be more stark as right from the get go Modern Warfare 3 sets the stage for action packed, run and gun fun. It only took me half an hour with Modern Warfare 3 to realise that Infinity Ward are extremely adept at crafting an epic cinematic experience, one far superior to that of Battlefield 3’s single player.

Indeed the set pieces you’ll play in are quite spectacular. The environments you’ll play in are quite varied, ranging from towering city scapes to the vast depths of a Russian diamond mine. Whilst many of the campaign scenes form the basis of the multiplayer maps they are thankfully not the same maps like in Battlefield 3. For the most part the single player sections of Modern Warfare 3 are quite intimate with most taking place in what can be most aptly described as a giant corridor. It’s not a particularly bad thing but compared to Battlefield 3’s expansive environments it can leave you feeling a little wanting for the giant environments of yore. Still they’re usually littered with alternative paths which open up all sorts of different tactics.

Combat in Modern Warfare 3 is polished to the point of perfection. Whilst the cover based regenerative health style of game play is far from inventive Infinity Ward has it down to a T so well that the only complaint you can have about it is the unoriginality. The NPCs that accompany you, whilst not being on the same level as a real human, are not the next to useless meat bags that plagued me in Battlefield 3. Combine these with weapons (and on occasion awesome gadgets like the UGV pictured above) and the combat is satisfying, gritty and above all just plain fun.

If there was one genuine complaint that I’d level at Modern Warfare 3’s combat is actually too easy. Now according to my time with Robert Bowling each of the platforms recieved the same amount of development time which kind of rules out my theory that the PC version is a well polished port that dumbs down the difficulty for those who have to aim with their thumbs. Now I didn’t play the game through on its hardest difficulty, opting for Hardened or whatever the second hardest was, but this is a complaint I’ve heard echoed by several other people who have played on the hardest setting. It could be argued that this lack of difficulty is one of the things that adds to the enjoyment of the game (and indeed it does mean that it’s a very well paced game) but it does make Modern Warfare 3 stand out as something aimed more at new comers to the series rather than seasoned FPS gamers like myself. 

Thinking about it more there are quite a few signs that Modern Warfare 3 tends much more towards the playable movie side of the spectrum than your traditional FPS title. You’ll spend the entire game following someone and taking their orders rather than being let out on the loose by yourself to try and accomplish the mission. If you dare to deviate from the carefully constructed plot you’ll usually be greeted with a mission failed or flooded with waves of enemies you can’t hope to defeat. In that sense then if you think of Modern Warfare 3 as a playable movie more than a game then it accomplishes that quite well, even if that’s counter intuitive to what you’d expect from a game like this.

Overall the single player is a great way to blow 4~5 hours and whilst it might feel like you’re on rails and everything is a tad too easy ultimately I found myself having a blast playing the hero in Modern Warfare 3. One of my friends captured the essence of Modern Warfare games aptly by saying they’re like a Matthew Reilly book: an action packed read with a plot that’s nothing deep but enough to get you by; an afternoon of solid entertainment. Of course everyone knows that the single player is just a mere distraction on the road to the real reason why everyone buys the Modern Warfare games: the multiplayer.

Honestly at first I was thoroughly confused with the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3. Sure I had played it back at the preview a couple months ago and nothing had really changed in the interim (as far as I could tell) but the differences between Treyarch’s and Infinity Ward’s style of multiplayer is quite stark. For starters nearly everything in the game has a level attached to it from weapons to perks to you the player. At the start this is somewhat overwhelming especially when you consider that the built in classes have access to weapons and perks that you can’t unlock until later levels. Indeed you can’t create your own class until level 4, leaving you to stumble through the first few without a class that you created. For someone who got kind of used to making his own choices this was a bit irritating, but it didn’t last for long.

Levelling in Modern Warfare 3 is incredibly fast paced with rewards, unlocks and achievements being thrown at you constantly for doing almost anything in the game. Unlike Black Ops where you’d spend in game cash to buy upgrades for your weapons they’re instead unlocked progressively as you use the weapon in multiplayer matches. This is good and bad as you don’t have to worry about not having the cash required to get the upgrade you want but it also means that the best upgrades are reserved for those who use the weapon the longest. You see I found it quite fun in Black Ops to be able to switch to a completely new weapon and deck it out fully before diving into another game with it. In Modern Warfare 3 this isn’t really possible as I’d instead have to grind out that weapon in order to fully unlock it. The result is you pretty much stick with one weapon until you unlock the next best one, which can take a little while. All that being said though it only took me about 4 hours of play to reach level 22 which isn’t bad considering the level cap is 80.

What did disappoint me however was the lack of dedicated servers for ranked play. You see with Black Ops you had the familiar server browser where you could find the servers you wanted to play on and go play there. Modern Warfare 3 brings back the dreaded peer to peer system for ranked play and leaves the dedicated servers for strictly unranked play. I can understand why this decision was made but the fact of the matter is that peer to peer multiplayer is a sub-par experience for PC gamers. Whilst initially I found it to be trouble free the last couple hours saw many host migrations with several of them ending with me being disconnected from the game completely. Black Ops (and Battlefield 3) had none of these issues and they also don’t seem to struggle with hackers on their servers either. It’s unfortunate that Infinity Ward choose this direction again but it looks like they’re set in their ways with this one.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 stands as a testament to Infinity Ward’s ability to produce AAA titles time and time again. Sure they’re unoriginal and formulaic but they’ve got that down so well that when you start playing them all those thoughts melt away a cacophony of explosions, explicatives and enemies.  The multiplayer is, as always, thoroughly enjoyable and the persistent levelling system will see me playing it long after this review is written. It’s not all roses however and the things I’ve panned Modern Warfare 3 for could have easily been averted by Infinity Ward. Overall Modern Warfare 3 is a great game and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to long time Call of Duty fans and new comers alike.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $89.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Harderned difficulty with 4 hours and 37% completion. 4 hours of multiplayer was also played with majority being spent in the team deathmatch mode. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing. 

The Woes of Azure Table Storage.

I’m a stickler for avoiding rework where I can, opting instead to make the most of what I already have before I set out on trying to rework something. You’d think that’d lead me to create overly complicated systems that have multiple nuances and edge cases but since I know I hate reworking stuff I’ll go out of my way to make things right the first time, even if it costs me a bit more initially. For the most part this works well and even when it comes time to dump something and start over again much of my previous work will make it into the reworked product, albeit it in a different form.

I hit such a dilemma last weekend when I was working on my latest project. As long time readers will know I’m a pretty big fan of Microsoft’s Azure services and I decided to use them as the platform for my next endeavour. For the most part it’s been quite good, getting started with the development environment was painless and once I got familiar with the features and limitations of the Azure platform I was able to create the basic application in almost no time at all. Everything was going great until I started to hit some of the fundamental limitations of one of Azure services, namely the Table Storage.

For the uninitiated Azure Table Storage is like a database, but not in the traditional sense. It’s one of them new fan dangled NoSQL type databases, the essential difference being that this kind of database doesn’t have a fixed schema or layout of how the data is stored. Considering that having a fixed layout of how the data is stored is where a database draws many of its advantages from you’d wonder what doing away with it would do for you. What it does is allow for a much higher level of scalability than a traditional database does and thus NoSQL type databases power many large apps, including things like Facebook and Twitter. Figuring that the app might be big one day (and Microsoft’s rather ludicrous pricing for SQL Azure) I settled on using it as my main data store.

However whilst there’s a lot of good things about Azure Table Storage there’s one downside that really hurts it’s usability: it’s limited query engine. You see whilst you can query it with good old fashioned LINQ the query parameters it supports are rather limited. In fact they’re limited to single parameter matches or boolean equivalences which, whilst working for a lot of use cases, doesn’t cater towards user constructed queries quite well. Indeed in my application where someone could search for a single name but the object could contain up to 8 (some of them set, some of them not) meant that I had to construct the query on the fly for the user. No problem I hear you say, LINQKit’s Predicate Builder can build that for you! Well you’d be wrong unfortunately since the resulting LINQ statement confuses the poor Azure Storage Client and the query errors out. 

So at this point I was faced with a difficult decision: manually crank out all the queries (which would end up being huge and ridiculously unmaintainable) whilst keeping my Table Storage back end or bite the bullet and move everything into SQL Azure. Whilst I knew that writing out the queries would be a one time only task (a very time consuming one) I couldn’t shake that feeling that doing that would just be the wrong thing to do in the long run, leaving me with an unmaintainable system that I’d curse constantly. I haven’t made the changes yet, that’s this weekend’s goal, but I know it’s not going to be as trouble free as I hope it will.

Sometimes you just have to swallow that bitter pill and it’s usually better to do it sooner rather than later. Azure Table Storage was perfect for me in the beginning  but as my requirements evolved the reality of the situation became apparent and I’m stuck in the unfortunate position of having to do rework that I tried so hard to avoid. My project and I will be better for it but it’s always tough when you’ve tried everything you could in order to avoid it and came up empty. 

Silverlight May Die, But the Developers Won’t.

You’d think that since I invested so heavily in Silverlight when I was developing Lobaco that I would’ve been more outraged at the prospect of Microsoft killing off Silverlight as a product. Long time readers will know that I’m anything but worried about Silverlight going away, especially considering that the release of the WinRT framework takes all those skills I learnt during that time and transitions them into the next generation of Windows platforms. In fact I’d say investing in Silverlight was one of the best decisions at the time as not only did I learn XAML (which powers WPF and WinRT applications) but I also did extensive web programming, something I had barely touched before.

Rumours started circulating recently saying that Microsoft had no plans to develop another version of the Silverlight plugin past the soon to be released version 5. This hasn’t been confirmed or denied by Microsoft yet but there are several articles citing sources familiar with the matter saying that the rumour is true and Silverlight will recieve no attention past this final iteration. This has of course spurred further outrage at Microsoft for killing off technologies that developers have heavily invested in and whilst in the past I’ve been sympathetic to them this time around I don’t believe they have a leg to stand on.

Microsoft initially released Silverlight back in 2007 and has release updates to the platform every year or so since then. Taking that into consideration you’d figure that the latest release of Silverlight has 1 or 2 years in it before other technologies (most likely HTM5 and JavaScript) overtake it in terms of functionality. In that time Windows 8 will be released along with WinRT, the framework that will be instantly familiar to any Silverlight developer. Sure the code might not be directly translatable to the new platform but considering the design work is done in XAML and C# is a supported language I’d struggle to find any Silverlight developer who wouldn’t be able to blunder their way through with a couple Google searches and a StackOverflow account.

All of Microsoft’s platforms are so heavily intertwined with each other that it’s really hard to be just a Silverlight/WPF/ASP.NET/MFC developer without a lot of crossover into other technologies. Hell apart from the rudimentary stuff I learnt whilst in university I was able to self learn all of those technologies in the space of a week or two without many hassles. Compare that with my month long struggle to learn basic Objective-C (which took me a good couple months afterwards to get proficient in) and you can see why I think that any developer whining about Silverlight going away is being incredibly short sighted or just straight up lazy.

In the greater world of IT you’re doomed to fade into irrelevance if you don’t keep pace with the latest technologies and developers are no exception to this. Whilst I can understand the frustration in losing the platform you may have patronized for the past 4 years I can’t sympathize with an unwillingness to adapt to a changing market. The Windows platform is by far one of the most developer friendly and the skills you learn in any Microsoft technology will flow onto other Microsoft products, especially if you’re proficient in any C based language. So whilst Microsoft might not see a future with Silverlight that doesn’t mean the developers are left high and dry, in fact they’re probably in the best position to innovate out of this situation. 

So This is Why You Keep Coming Back.

It might surprise you to know that I have a pretty keen interest in the realms of psychology. I’m not exactly sure where the interest comes from but I think it has something to do with me viewing the human mind as an incredibly complex machine, one that we’re only just beginning to decipher the inner workings of. Primarily I’m interested in what motivates people to do certain things so I can understand where they’re coming from. Thinking back to my university years I can see that this interest probably stemmed from my obsession with trying to understand the everyman, figuring that I was so far removed from normalcy that I had to undertake such tasks. That interest has of course lead me to try and figure out why people keep coming back here to read my writing and I recently uncovered some interesting facts that might shed some light on that.

I’ve known for quite a while that I’m not particularly good at judging what articles of mine will be popular and ones that won’t. I’ve tried to crack that secret formula of writing something that will be an instant success but realistically the most popular articles I’ve written have always been slow burners, coming into fame a long time after I wrote them. Still I noticed an interesting trend after each of those hits took off on their own accord: more people would start visiting. Not just from random searches but also returning visitors and each new hit would build on the last one. I put it down to simple network effects (I.E. one new reader usually entails more readers as they share the posts around) for the most part, but something I read yesterday changed my view on this.

B.F Skinner was an American behaviourist who’s research into cognitive processes spans a good 5 decades from 1938 to 1989. He was also somewhat of an inventor, building several contraptions to test his various theories. One such device was the Operant Conditioning Chamber (or Skinner Box) a simple device designed to test the link between behaviours and their link to rewards both positive (reinforcement) and negative (disincentive). They’re usually quite simple devices consisting of some kind of operandum (say a lever or button) that the subject has to activate in order to receive a reward.  Despite being so simple they can be used to study a wide range of behavioural mechanisms and one of them is particularly intriguing. 

Given a direct relationship between the operandum and the reward (press button, receive bacon) subjects in the box will make the association and would operate it when they wanted said reward. However should the relationship be indirect, say the reward only comes randomly, then the subjects began to develop behaviours that they believed were consistent with the reward. Examples of this were birds performing such unusual behaviours as bowing or dancing before pressing a button as they associated that behaviour with the completely random reward. With that in mind I started thinking about where I’d seen this behaviour elsewhere and pennies started dropping.

Games, especially casual and MMORPGs, are heavily based around this concept of random rewards. MMORPGs are probably the best example of this when they follow the usual formula of “kill baddies, they drop loot” but the best rewards don’t drop often. Indeed back in the beginning days of World of Warcraft one of the end raid bosses, Onyxia, had an ability called Deep Breath that, from a scientific point of view, was triggered completely at random. However guilds attempting this boss would employ crazy strategy after crazy strategy to stop her from using said ability, with some swearing by its effectiveness. It got to the point where it became a meme for each new patch that players would observe “Onyxia deep breathes more often” or someone would discover yet another mechanic that apparently affected the frequency.

For bloggers the effect is somewhat similar, although it usually takes a slightly different form. I know for myself that if I find a blog post that I really like I’ll usually end up subscribing to the author’s RSS feed, hoping to get more of the same. Of course not everything they put out will be gold but day after day I’ll find myself coming back hoping to see the writing that captured me in the first place. Every so often they’ll hit on it again and I’ll be hooked again for however long, but usually long enough that they’ll strike gold again.

And that, my readers, is probably why you keep coming back. I don’t know what post brought you here or what may have made you subscribe to me but undoubtedly the reason you keep coming back is that you’re hoping to see something along those lines again. I hope I can deliver on that often enough to be worth your while and indeed, since so many of you do come back I get the feeling I do that often enough to keep reinforcing that behaviour. Not that I’m actively trying to condition you though, although now that I think of it the prospect of doing so is rather tempting… 😉

VMware’s Demise? More Like The Rise of Haggling.

In the eyes of corporate IT shops the word virtualization is synonymous with the VMware brand. The reason is this is simple, VMware was first to market with solutions that could actually deliver tangible results to the business. VMware then made the most of this first mover advantage quickly diversifying their product portfolio away from just straight up virtualization into a massive service catalogue that no competitor has yet to match. There’s no denying that they’re the most pricey of the solutions however but many IT shops have been willing to wear the costs due to the benefits that they receive. However in the past couple years or so the competitors, namely Hyper-V and Xen, have started to catch up in features and this has seen many IT shops questioning their heavy investment in VMware.

Undoubtedly this dissatisfaction with VMware’s products has been catalysed by the licensing change in vSphere 5 which definitely gave the small to medium section of the market some pause when it came to keeping VMware as a platform. For larger enterprises it wasn’t so much of a big deal since realistically they’d already licensed most of their capacity anyway. Still it’s been enough for most of them to cast a careful eye over their current spend levels on VMware’s products and seek to see if there’s perhaps a better way to spend all that cash. Indeed a recent survey commissioned by Veeam showed that 38% of virtualized businesses were looking to switch platforms in the near future.

The report doesn’t break down into exactly which platform they’re switching from and to but since the 3 biggest reasons cited are cost, alternative hypervisor features and licensing model (all long time complaints of the VMware platform) it’s a safe bet that most of those people are considering changing from VMware to another platform (typically Hyper-V). Indeed I can add that anecdotally the costs of VMware are enough now that business are seriously considering the platform swap because of the potential savings from a licensing perspective. Hyper-V is the main contender because most virtualization is done with Windows servers and under the typical licensing agreements the hypervisor is usually completely free. Indeed even the most basic of Windows server licenses gives you 1 free virtual machine to play with and it just gets better from there.

But why are so many considering switching from the market leader now when the problems cited have been around nearly half a decade? For the most part it has to do with the alternatives finally reaching feature parity with VMware when it comes to base level functionality. For the longest time VMware was the only one that was capable of doing live migrations between hosts with technology they called vMotion. Xen caught up quickly but their lack of Windows support meant that it saw limited use in corporate environments, even after the support was added in shortly after. Hyper-V on the other hand struggled to get it working only releasing it with Server 2008 R2. With Windows 2003 and XP now on the way out many IT shops are now looking to upgrade to 2008 R2 and that’s when they notice the capabilities of Hyper-V.

Strictly speaking though I’d say that whilst there’s a good few people considering making the jump from VMware to another hypervisor the majority are only doing so in order to get a better deal out of VMware. Like any business arrangement the difference between the retail price and the actual price anyone pays is quite large and VMware is no exception to this rule. I’ve seen quite a few decision makers wave the Hyper-V card without even the most rudimentary of understanding of what it’s capabilities are, nor any concrete plans to put it in motion. There’s also the fact that if you’re based on VMware now and you switch to another platform you’re going to have to make sure all your staff are retrained with the new product, a costly and time consuming exercise. So whilst the switch from VMware may look like the cheaper option if you just look at the licensing there’s a whole swath of hidden and intangible costs that need to be taken into consideration.

So with that all said is VMware staring down the barrel of a inevitable demise? I don’t believe so, their market capture and product lead means that they’ve got a solid advantage over everyone in the market. Should the other hypervisors begin eating away at their market share they have enough of a lead to be able to react in time, either by significantly reducing their prices or simply innovating their way ahead again. I will be interested to see how these figures shape up in say 3/9/12 months from now to see if those 38%ers made good on their pledge to change platforms but I’m pretty sure I know the outcome already.

Battlefield 3: So Much Achieved, So Much To Do.

It’s only been recently that I’ve come around to war based games, especially those in the first person shooter genre. For that I lay the blame squarely at the developers who, for the longest time, churned out title after title that was just the same as the previous one except for maybe some new weapons or a multiplayer game mode. Thus it should come as no surprise that Battlefield 3 is the first in the series that I’ve bothered to play for more than a couple hours at a LAN. You can thank Black Ops for that as their last few instalments showed me that these games could be more than just mere distractions, and Battlefield 3 is certainly a lot more than that.

Battlefield 3 is the 11th instalment in the Battlefield series coming out nearly a decade after the first in the series. The setting is modern day with the majority of the game centring around the middle east. In the campaign you play as Sgt. Blackburn, an officer who’s been brought in for question because he may know something about a potential terrorist threat. The game is then told through a series of flashbacks to various missions that Blackburn carried out, revealing more about the reasons why he’s ended up where he is. The campaign also serves as a tutorial for multiplayer, introducing you to many aspects of the game.

Now I’m usually pretty gushy about graphics and Battlefield 3 is no exception. Indeed the first few trailers I saw of in game footage were the sole reason why I had intended to buy Battlefield 3 in the first place and indeed many of my friends were also convinced in the same way. I do get hit by tech wonderlust though so I was sceptical about how realistic it actually was until my wife, who was about 3 meters or so from my screen, said “Is that real?” when she saw the scene pictured below. Given that she’s seen me play my fair share of games having her ask such a question means that Battlefield 3 really is another step up in graphics technology, putting DICE at the forefront of what’s possible in the realms of computer graphics.

Surprisingly the incredible graphics of Battlefield 3 doesn’t seem to come at the cost of performance. Now my machine is somewhat of a beast: Intel 2600K, 16GB RAM and a HD6950, but even with that I’ve had some recent games slow to a crawl when I’ve put them on max settings. Battlefield 3 however is buttery smooth from inside the smallest corridors to the most wide open of spaces with dozens of players in view. It’s truly incredible that the game doesn’t turn into a complete slideshow when you up the player count to 64 as many graphics intensive FPSs in the past (I.E. the original Crysis) struggled with just over 8 players simultaneously.

The game play in Battlefield 3 is divided into 2 categories: infantry and vehicle. For the majority of the single player you’ll be playing as infantry, slogging your way through on foot whilst you run and gun in your typical FPS affair. There’s a little bit of variety in the missions, ranging from your typical get from point A to point B to providing cover for your allies in the form of sniper fire. The vehicle sections are a bit of a refreshing change from the relative monotony of the infantry sections although they’re fairly limited in scope, serving as only a brief introduction into what you’ll be experiencing in multiplayer.

If you bought Battlefield 3 for just the campaign though you’d be sorely disappointed with it clocking in at just over 4 hours in my play through. This is typical of these AAA titles that are much more focused on providing an on-going experience through multiplayer rather than delivering a single player epic so I can’t really fault it for that. The plot of Battlefield 3 though is somewhat confusing and rather poorly written in sections, taking the cheap flashback route to simply demonstrate the various multiplayer levels in a single player setting. Playing on the most difficult setting will also see all the enemies have sniper like accuracy with whatever weapon they’re carrying, even when they’re blind firing around the corner. It also doesn’t help that your team mates, when you have them, are next to completely useless sometimes walking past enemies and then indicating for you to join them, resulting in you getting gunned down on the spot.

This is where I make a distinction between a game being “hard” on one hand and being just tedious on the other. A game that is truly hard is one that provide a challenge for you to overcome, one that will teach you to be a better gamer for having conquered it. Giving NPCs ungodly abilities like pinpoint accuracy just adds tedium, not challenge, to a game. Indeed I spent much of the campaign of Battlefield 3 explicitly ignoring the game’s instructions because, if I did, I’d be gunned down immediately. Thus instead of it being a challenge where I tried different tactics to see which came out the best I instead found ways to get the game to progress to the next check point, even if that meant doing nothing for 5 minutes whilst events played themselves out.

Of course the real meat of Battlefield 3 isn’t contained within the brief confines of the campaign, it’s all about the multiplayer. Now I was semi-familiar with the lay of the land in multiplayer Battlefield games but after spending a good 20+ hours on Call of Duty: Black Ops I was preconditioned to expect a few things which aren’t exactly the same. That’s not a failing on Battlefield 3’s part by any stretch of the imagination, more I can see why some people stick to one or the other as the multiplayer is a decidedly different experience between the two. The  main difference is there’s no vehicles in Call of Duty whilst there’s vehicles aplenty in Battlefield, but that’s really only the beginning of the differences between them. 

On the PC the difference starts right from the way that get into the game with DICE introducing a new system called Battlelog. In essence its a social networking service built around Battlefield 3, much like Call of Duty Elite is shaping up to be. You can do all the regular social network-y type stuff, friend people, post status updates, etc. but all your in game achievements and unlocks are also put on display for everyone to see. Interestingly enough everything about Battlefield 3 is accessed through the Battlelog system, the only time it doesn’t come into play is when you’re offline and then Battlefield 3 will just kick you into the campaign.

Battlelog is both a blessing and a curse making some things just so darn simple you wonder how you did without them whilst at the same time providing enough pain to make you wonder why you bothered with trying to play some multiplayer in the first place. The grouping feature, allowing you to create a party and then join a server with said party, is phenomenal and appears to filter down to the squad level when you get into the game. This has made it so much easier to jump on a server with friends and have a good time with them, rampaging through maps as an organised group. Finding friends is also easy thanks to the Facebook integration, allowing you to pick everyone up without having to ask them for their in game name.

However Battlelog also seems to have troubles performing some of its most basic functions. The server filter list, whilst working properly most of the time, sometimes forgets or ignores your settings. I’ve had several occasions where I’d select “1-5 slots free” only to end up in a completely empty 64 person server. The voice chat is also borderline useless, being rather low quality and cutting in and out a lot, especially if you use the voice activation option. I also had several games just up and disconnect me for no reason and Battlelog simply reports “Game was disconnected” even though my Internet connection is fine and I rejoin the server immediately. As the multiplayer really is what Battlefield 3 is all about the Battlelog system having such faults really does it a disservice and one I can’t really pass over.

To DICE’s credit though the multiplayer is fun, action packed and highly varied. If you want you can play it much like Call of Duty as they’ve reintroduced team deathmatch, battling the other team to the death. However most seem to favour the conquest style maps, basically a capture and hold style of game play with a limited number of respawns for each team. The large versions of conquest maps are teaming with various vehicles, allowing you to wreck havoc from all directions. Everything from yourself to your class to the vehicles you drive have persistent levelling up associated with them, unlocking new abilities and upgrades as you go through. I’ve already sunk a good 8 to 10 hours in the multi and feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface and I’ll definitely be playing for a while into the future.

Battlefield 3 impresses me on so many levels which is why it pains me so much to point out the flaws that detract so heavily from its achievements. DICE has been rapidly iterating in order to address the flaws but they simply shouldn’t have existed to begin with. The Battlelog is a brilliant idea that suffers from some elements of poor execution, much like Battlefield 3 does as a whole. Still I wouldn’t recommend against buying Battlefield 3 though as despite all these problems once you’re actually in the game it’s very enjoyable to play, especially when you accidentally ram your jet into the ground for the 3rd time that game. Hopefully the issues that I experienced in the past are eventually worked out and then Battlefield 3 will really be a serious contender to take the crown as FPS king.

Rating: 8.25/10

Battlefield 3 is available right now on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for $79.99, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played on the hardest difficulty with 4 hours in the single player and approximately 10 hours of multiplayer total.

Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1: China Blazing Into the Space History Books.

Pushing the envelope of capabilities in space is a slow and arduous task where small step after small step eventually makes its way to the ultimate goal. Even with today’s technology it still takes us the better part of a decade to go from concept to reality, especially if you’re trying to build launch capability from scratch. Hell even my current crush, SpaceX, has taken 10 years to get to the stage they’re at and that’s considered blindingly fast even when you compare them to the superpowers of the world. China on the other hand has proven themselves to be extremely capable, innovating at an extremely rapid pace.

So rapid in fact that I was sure I had already covered their most recent accomplishment, docking Shenzhou 8 with Tiangong 1:

China’s technological capabilities took a major surge forward with the successful docking in space today for the first time ever of two Chinese built and launched spaceships – orbiting some 343 kilometers in the heavens above at 1:37 a.m. Beijing time Nov. 3(1:37 p.m. EDT, Nov. 2). China’s goal is to build a fully operational space station in Earth orbit by 2020 – about the time when the ISS may be retired.

Today’s space spectacular joining together the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 prototype space station was an historic feat for China, which now becomes only the 3rd country to accomplish a rendezvous and docking of spacecraft in Earth orbit.

In fact the last thing I wrote was just over a month ago when China had successfully launched their Tiangong 1 prototype. In that time they managed to prep, launch and have Shenzhou 8 rendezvous with Tiangong 1 putting China on par with the small number of nations who have developed such capability. Over the next couple weeks Shenzhou 8 will un-dock and re-dock with Tiangong 1 in order to prove that the technology is solid. Once the mission has been completed Shenzhou 8 will return to earth for further analysis.

Launching two separate vehicles rapidly one after another is par for the course of any space program but what really surprised me was China’s plans for the next 2 craft to visit Tiagong 1. China has no less than 2 more missions planned before the end of 2012 and one of those will be a manned. When you take into consideration that China has only managed to complete their first EVA 3 years ago (a critical capability for keeping a station in orbit) having a manned station so soon afterwards is an incredible achievement. Going on their timeline we could see China have their own Salyut level space station before the decade is out, and that’s just incredible.

I’m hoping that with these accomplishments that both Russia and the USA recognize how valuable China could be for the future of their space programs and seek to include them in future endeavours. So far China is the only country explicitly excluded from participating with the International Space Station, most because the USA thought they’d be nothing more than a burden to them. Such rapid progress shows that they’re not only capable of replicating current technology but also innovating their own solutions, something which would be highly valuable to all current space fairing nations. It’ll take a long time for those political barriers to start coming down, but I hold out every hope that one day they eventually will.