The spirit of BarCamp is alive and well in Manchester – #BCMCR5

Excuse how overdue this blog post is… but how awesome was BarCamp Manchester?! It seems the spirit of BarCamp is alive and well in our city and that’s reassuring. With so much focus on tech startups, venture capital and, frankly, short-term money making, I’d begun to wonder whether the geek community that helped drive much of Manchester’s meteoric rise as a place to do digital was beginning to get squeezed out. Where were the hackers who hacked for hacking’s sake?

So I admit, it was with a slightly sceptical mind that I approached BarCampManchester5 – held in TechHub ManchesterSpacePort, I was fully expecting a weekend of being pitched at and recruited.

I was completely wrong (and maybe exaggerating just a tad).

BarCamp Manchester had all the great things about a BarCamp – in abundance.

SpacePort proved to be a fantastic venue with the organisers having negotiated with the residents who generously let us use the space. Sheila Bird Group also allowed the use of the space next door on the same floor which allowed for an incredible number of simultaneous sessions. There was plenty of food – perhaps a little too much, despite the organisers serious efforts to control waste. And there was WiFi. My word was there good WiFi, thanks to SpacePort residents Telcom. There were even plenty of projectors for most of the spaces which has often been a big problem in the past.

But most importantly, there were the people. At the opening plenary, it turned out to be a 50/50 split between newbies and old hands, which is a pretty good mix for what’s arguably a niche event.

My day at BarCamp Manchester was pretty varied. I kicked it off listening to the Ian “The” Forrester himself discuss, “what is a geek?”. Although I’ve heard it many times before, it’s always satisfying to see the group reach the same conclusion.

Later, I enjoyed the event’s unofficial keynote:

…yes, it was Ian again! But this time, being interviewed by friend and colleague Tim. I caught most of it on video so I’ll get around to uploading it eventually.

I was pretty impressed at Ian’s candid responses and Tim‘s interviewing skill makes me think David Frost’s shoes will soon be filled.

I also surprised myself by running a session. Tim and I had chatted earlier in the day about sharing some of our thoughts on how to grow new business without using typical “sales” tactics. We’re really keen to promote what feels like the “right” way to do business – a way that we, and customers, are both happy with  – rather than the typical “used car salesman” approach that is the touchstone for many commodity businesses.

So towards the end of the first day, we managed to cobble something together.

Our main thrust was to “optimise for happiness” – meaning, do the thing that will make your serious potential customer happy in the long run. There’s a lot more to it – I even came up with a tweetable quote – and maybe I’ll write something specific in due course. But BarCamp Manchester was a brilliant place to try this out.

Of course, no BarCamp in Manchester could be complete without games. Following the charmingly ridiculous SlideShare karaoke (and the pizza mountain), I instigated a lolworthy game of charades. But that was only the appetiser: the main course was werewolf!

Werewolf is a brilliant game – sometimes an acquired taste, but everyone seemed to get into it pretty quickly. With a mix competitive, experienced players and people who’d never played before, it was bound to be heady.

Someone even captured a timelapse of the multiple games in play:

In conclusion, BarCamp Manchester was pretty great and well-exceeded my expectations. I loved catching up with old friends and meeting new people, learning new things and even giving a talk. Werewolf was well worth it and it’s just a shame I couldn’t come back the next day. If you missed it, catch up on the event’s social media shares.

Congratulations to the organising team – Claire, Shaf, Ian – and a huge thank you to everyone who made this possible. Roll on BarCamp Manchester 6…

This SSL-secured server is now powered by Bytemark Symbiosis!

EDIT: This server is now SSL-secured, thanks again to Symbiosis and free SSL certificates from StartCom!

I’ve finally got my act together and migrated’s WordPress installation to a Bytemark BigV server that’s running Symbiosis.

Ever since I started working at Bytemark, I’ve hosted this blog on BigV, but I used the convenience of Turnkey Linux to rapidly create a working WordPress installation.

But many of the things that Turnkey took care of for me were easily available on Symbiosis, with the added convenience of it being fully documented to help with the occasional fumbles. My Symbiosis server now happily manages a few different website installations on just one box and setup for email is taken care of automatically.

So too are backups, pretty much. Following my colleague Nathan’s blog post, I finally have a backup approach, though I am missing an offsite component. But since Symbiosis is free/libre open source software, I can even install it on my home server and use it to manage backups. One of Bytemark’s clients has even done a write-up for this use case.

Moving away from Turnkey has also meant I can stop using Webmin and offering a remote web shell. Both of these things were convenient when I was newer to administering a server, but now I personally see them as unnecessary when Symbiosis handles most tasks. I also use SSH without passwords. That said, it was definitely a convenient way to get going quickly and I have another WordPress installation using it that doesn’t need to move anytime soon.

I’m glad that I’ve finally moved across and I’ll be documenting it fully in due course. But for now, it’s safe to say that the migration was surprisingly easy as I was able to copy my entire blog between servers and import the database straight into MySQL. A bit of fiddling with wp-config.php, resetting permissions and I had a working installation.

To conclude, I’ll quote my former colleague Steve: Symbiosis is wonderful. For me, it’s unlocked the power of Linux to achieve complex tasks with just a few terminal commands. I look forward to talking more about it with the wider web community at MozFest later this month.

Memories of AudioBoo

So AudioBoo is no more. Well, that’s not true: it’s been rebranded to AudioBoom, a brand they declare is “cooler” and with what seems to be a focus on listening, rather than creating.

I always liked the name AudioBoo – it had charm and was certainly British, if a bit twee – but perhaps for those reasons, the AudioBoom teams in New York, San Francisco and Sydney decided it had to go.

Nonetheless, the change in brand has brought me back to the platform, at least briefly. I stopped regularly using AudioBoo some time ago. I’m not sure why, as browsing back through my Boos my posts on AudioBoom reveals a plethora of charming sounds and associated images I enjoyed sharing.

Here are a few that I just picked out:

You can also listen to some of my cringe-worthy interviews, but I’m not going to share them here – you can easily find them through my profile.

Positively, AudioBoom now offers 10 minutes of free recording time. That’s up from five minutes, which often resulted in my making multiple posts for longer sounds. There’s also a handy new playlisting function that I’m using above,

So what next for AudioBoom? SoundCloud clearly has the user base when it comes to mixes and even podcasts. And if AudioBoom is moving more towards consumption rather than creation, then where will the content come from?

AudioBoo for me was always about voice and sounds, shared simply and instantly. Sounds evoke emotion and imagination in a way that short web video doesn’t, particularly when nudged along with a simple still image.

Whether there’s a niche for that simplicity in today’s social media environment of YouTubers, infographics and quick shareables is yet to be determined.

Political leaders must commit fully to space4cycling

Update: Space for Cycling went ahead successfully last night, with various Labour politicians coming out to show their support. This morning, Mary Creagh MP, Labour Shadow Transport minister spoke at Labour Party conference at Labour Party conference. Depressingly, there was no real commitment to space4cycling, bar improving HGV safety:

Not the dedicated, segregated network that’s safe for ages 8-80 that we’d asked for. GMCC and CTC are now calling for a manifesto commitment – lobby your MP here.

Tonight, hundreds of people will gather at Manchester’s All Saints Park to participate in a Space4Cycling bike ride all round the city. Timed to coincide with Labour Party conference, the organisers say:

we’re riding to raise awareness of the need for Space for Cycling. We want the ride to be a fun, family friendly event where we ride as a group at a gentle pace for a short distance around the city centre.

This ride takes place about a year after the first Space4Cycling bike ride in Manchester, which was timed to coincide with the Conservative Party conference. Last year’s ride took place shortly after the announcement that Manchester had won £20m from the Cycle City Ambition Fund following a successful bid, titled “Velocity 2025“.

So what are we riding for? After all, we have the money – shouldn’t we be happy? Things can only get better, as I’m sure someone once said.

Happily, the Velocity proposals are now coming through. Unfortunately, having been filtered through the council’s town planning department, we’re beginning to see that the vision for a cycling city isn’t necessarily the same as reality.

I believe that dedicated, separate space for cycling is what we want. Not shared pedestrians paths alongside roads for cars, or an endless succession of toucan crossings.

And, honestly, money is not the only thing that’s needed to make this a reality. In fact, it’s probably not the first thing we need either.

What we need is commitment. Real commitment from our political leaders that cycling is a serious form of transport that will have does have real, tangible benefits: from reducing congestion, improving health and boosting our global competitiveness.

Without that, any new money will do little. And the Velocity schemes will continue to fall short of the vision with which they were funded.

Manchester: Let’s compete on liveability with London

Originally published as a Points North comment for Prolific North.

It’s time to realise that the north can’t compete with London. The sheer size of the place, the awesome edifices, the concentration of people and cultures – it’s an incredible place. No wonder thousands of people from across the country and the EU choose London as the place they want to go to live and work.

But there are a few of us who have moved the other way. After living almost my whole life in our capital city, I threw caution to the wind and moved to Manchester. Attracted by the lower cost of living and the imminent move of the BBC cementing its position as a media hub, it seemed a sensible move to “try out” for 18 months.

Six years later, I’m still here. Swapping my 45 minute car or Tube commute for a 10 minute walk (and now 15 minute cycle) was a revelation. I can live near the city centre for a fraction of what it costs to live anywhere that central in London. And when I need to head over to our York office every couple of weeks, the main train station is only a few minutes away.

Simply put, the north is already more liveable than London. So why isn’t this the main differentiator that we compete on when attracting talented, motivated workers?

I believe that if a city really wants to step up to the plate of becoming the UK’s “second city” then it needs to do so on the basis of being much more liveable than our capital city, not just the second most crowded. In many cities across the north, we’re already half way there: as Guy Garvey says of Manchester, “they return the love round here, don’t they?”. So we’ve got friendly, helpful people. But we need to do more than share northern charm.

One of the elements that I believe can massively improve liveability is to reduce congestion in cities. We can all agree that congestion is a bad thing – it’s wasted time and it’s wasted money. So why do we accept congestion as a fact of life? We say that it’s because of “traffic”.

There’s one flaw in this: if you’re in the middle of congestion, then you are traffic. And a congested city is not a liveable city.

This is why I’m passionate about the effect that walking and cycling can have on improving liveability in cities. But to do that, we need accept that private cars shouldn’t rule our lives and our political decision-making.

Trust me, I’m not some car-hating fundamentalist – I drive when I need to and I think that they absolutely have a vital role to play – but it shouldn’t be a default. I’m actually pretty ordinary: the fact is 45% of households in Manchester don’t have access to a car or a van. Yet Manchester is one of the most congested cities in Europe.

Political leaders across the north need to wake-up to this. Putting real money behind long-term, sustainable plans to shift people away from cars and onto bikes or walking will pay off in the long run. It will reduce congestion and increase the liveability of our cities. That in turn will attract talented, motivated workers who want to enjoy where they live and work – not just tolerate it for a decent wage. Just look at the examples of Copenhagen and Amsterdam – two successful cities, similar in size to Manchester or Leeds that are ranked extremely highly on liveability . Both feature a total modal share for cycling at around 40%; according to TfGM, just 2.1% of people in Manchester cycle to work (though amazingly, this outstrips the 1.3% that use Metrolink!).

So in conclusion: if we want to make our northern cities more competitive with London, and attract talented, motivated workers, not just wage slaves then we should build on our lower cost of living to make them even more liveable. One way of doing that? Well, it’s as easy as riding a bike.

App of the (last) week: Disk Inventory X

Originally published on the Melbourne blog.

In the era of “the cloud”, it seems odd perhaps to be concerned about how much free disk space your computer has left. But there are still plenty of reasons why you might run out of disk space. In my case, my Mac laptop has a relatively small solid-state drive (SSD) and I’m one of those annoying people that decides he wants to use both Mac OS X and Windows, via Boot Camp.

So where the hell has all my disk space gone? It’s not just the fact I’ve donated 20 GB to Windows. My Documents folder is only a few gig, as I save the majority of my work related content to a office cloud server.  And my Applications folder isn’t big enough to justify the lack of space.

Enter my app of the week: Disk Inventory X.

This invaluable – free – app scans your hard drive and shows your usage in the form of a treemap. Essentially, a quick visual way of showing which files and file types are consuming space on a drive. You can home in on problem files just by hovering over them, or get an idea of whether you need to move your photo library somewhere else.

Disk Inventory X treemapAs you can see above, I’ve got a big file taking up quite a large amount of space – though clicking on it shows it’s actually my Mac’s sleep image. The last time I ran this, it showed me a large archive of old emails that I didn’t need anymore too.

Disk Inventory X works on Mac and Windows partitions, though it’s a Mac-only app, so it is helpful if you’re trying to diagnose disk issues on a Boot Camp partitions. However, there’s the similar WinDirStat if you’re a full-time Windows user.

Think it’s useful? Download Disk Inventory X here.

App of (last) week: GIF Finder

Originally published on the Melbourne blog.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then an animated GIF almost certainly livens up a 140 character tweet.

So when your only response to a tweet or awkward moment is to issue an animated GIF, the time it takes to search Google Images, memegenerator or Tumblr can suck the fun out of it.

Enter GIF Finder. This brilliantly simple and free iPhone app offers “All the fun of gifs, none of the hassle of finding them.”

There’s not really much to how GIF Finder works, which is refreshing given the endless bells and whistles you find in most free apps. Just search for the GIF you want, pick from those returned and then share to wherever you want it to go.

GIF Finder uses Tumblr as its source for GIFs, so there’s usually something that hits the spot. And conveniently, it’ll share to clipboard as well as Twitter, Facebook etc so you’re not required to use the built-in iOS sharing.

gif-finder-1 gif-finder-2 gif-finder-3

GIF Finder is a simple concept, well executed and fills a surprising niche. It’s free on the iOS App Store, but there’s no Android version yet which I suspect might go down well with ‘droid-toting teens.

Download GIF Finder now.

How should I choose the right cloud provider for my business?

Originally published for Insider Magazine’s Ask the Expert

Q: How should I choose the right cloud provider for my business?

In 2014, talking about “the cloud” seems almost boring. The marketplace is saturated with many similar types of cloud technology all promising to keep your business-critical data safe and cut costs.

The truth is that the cloud is an old concept. All the cloud really refers to is the efficient and resilient sharing of vast, pooled computer resources. This means businesses can buy into the right level of capacity and resilience that they need, without investing in expensive hardware.

So in a market awash with providers, how do you pick the right one for your business?

Think of it like this: you need to buy a cake for an extremely special occasion. You can’t bake so your options are to go to a supermarket or to go to your local bakery/cake shop.

A supermarket is a reliable place to buy cake off-the-shelf, in different basic forms. You’ll probably get something that you like if you shop around enough. They’ll even let you customise it – say by adding a personal message.

On the other hand, your local cake decorator or baker is going to work hard show off their reputation for beautiful, bespoke cakes that’s been won over years with hard work. They might not have the ability to turn out the perfect cake immediately, but each one they produce will be exactly what the customer asked for. And with planning, a bigger order is rarely a problem.

The key difference between them is that while a supermarket can produce the same basic cakes over and over again, you rarely get outstanding customer service. A good local bakery will try hard to keep good staff and offer a friendly face when you pop in for your next order or even just a cuppa.

So in my opinion, what it boils down to is trust. Who do you trust to produce exactly the right cake for that special occasion?

And if you’re about to buy a slice of the cloud, who do you trust more to deliver the right solution for your business?

How to: set up your own email server in 5 steps

Originally published on Bytemark’s forum

There are a load of guides to setting up email on a server, but many of them don’t cover the extra useful features that make hosting your own email a viable experience.

If you’re going to wean yourself off Gmail, then you need usable webmail, (push) IMAP, spam filtering, virus protection and all the extras like DKIM signing on outgoing messages.

Using Symbiosis +, you can set up a mail server with all the above features in just five steps.

Symbiosis is free software that already powers thousands of mailboxes across Bytemark’s network. It’s easy to use for developers and seasoned sysadmins, being well documented and doesn’t need you to be using Bytemark or BigV at all – it’s free software.

There are five steps, but I’ve assumed two pre-requisites (which avoid having to configure DNS):

  • that you’ve registered your domain and pointed it at Bytemark’s name servers: [a-c] and
  • that you have an account on If you want to try before you buy, is currently offering free credit to run a basic server for a month.

1. Create a server using Bytemark Symbiosis through the client.

$ bigv vm new

Make sure you pick symbiosis as your distribution.

For the more visually inclined, try the beta BigV web manager:

You don’t need anything special – the basic configuration of 1 GiB RAM, 1 core and 25 GB of sata space will sort you out (sata:25).

At the end of the imaging process, you’ll get the root password and IP address. Take note of both!

2. Login to your newly created server using SSH.

$ ssh

Use admin as the user, rather than root. The password is the same by default. You’ll land in the home directory for admin, which is /srv. You can also connect to the IP address.

3. Create a domain and mailbox user in Symbiosis by creating subdirectories.

$ mkdir -p /srv/

Symbiosis works by using subdirectories and files to configure domains, mailboxes and users. There’s no web interface, scripts to run or interpret. Just plain directories and files.

The Symbiosis documentation recommends use of SFTP through FileZilla. Personally I’m fine with SSH at the command-line, but pick whatever you like. Just remember to use the admin account rather than root.

4. Set a password for the user.

$ echo Passw0rd123 | symbiosis-encrypt-password >

Passw0rd123 can be any text string. Essentially, this stores a hash of the password in the right place.

5. Test the email setup.

Open webmail (SquirrelMail) by visiting the following address in your web browser:

Login with the username you set at the full domain, e.g. Use the password you created above.

Webmail can be accessed over https which by default is secured with a self-signed certificate. You can also add your new mail account to your favourite mail client using IMAP or POP3. Symbiosis supports TLS for both protocols.

That’s it! In just 5 steps, you’ve setup a fully working email implementation, reasonably secured and in a well understood way.

You can easily extend your email setup by using SpamAssassin for spam filtering and ClamAV for antivirus. Have a read through the Symbiosis documentation for more. All the software is documented and open source.


If nothing comes up when you visit the webmail URL, try waiting up to an hour, especially if your domain hasn’t previously been registered on Bytemark’s DNS servers. Your domain will be automatically configured to serve email (including SMTP) and webmail if it’s hosted within Bytemark’s network.

If it’s hosted elsewhere, you can check out the sample records to set up your DNS config.

Did you find this useful? Do you have any suggestions for improving this documentation? Please drop me a comment below.

Is York poised to emerge as the UK’s next digital city?

Originally published in Prolific North in April for Bytemark

Known more for its history than digital creativity, York has spent the last decade quietly reinventing itself as a city ready for the super-connected digital future. Is York now positioned to be the UK’s next tech startup success story?

Having existed for almost two millennia, York is known better for its rich history than as a centre for digital creativity.

But beneath York’s cobbled streets lies more than just the bones of Viking villagers and Roman centurions. There’s something else: a high-speed fibre optic data network, offering gigabit speeds to homes and businesses.

And within York’s ancient city walls, the city is blanketed by free WiFi, thanks to discreetly installed antennas across the city. It’s also available on buses, in parks and public buildings.

Thanks to a share of £50 million from the Government’s Super-Connected City Programme, these major public investments by the City of York council have helped position York as a remarkably forward-thinking city. By providing digital infrastructure, just like electricity or running water, York has created an environment where digital businesses don’t have to struggle to start up.

James Alexander, Leader of City of York Council is adamant that digital infrastructure is the key to the city’s future success:

“We want to be a top 5 UK economy and to do so, we need the physical infrastructure to support that. Turning York into a ‘Gigabit City’ is hugely important for businesses, residents and visitors.”

But it’s not just connectivity and infrastructure. Beyond the narrow streets of the centre, there have been active developments outside the city walls that have promoted hi-tech industries. York is a founding National Science City and between 1998 and 2008, gained 80 new tech companies and 2,800 jobs. York Science Park and other business parks on the outskirts have provided room for these fast-growing firms to expand.

One growing York firm that’s taking advantage is Bytemark Hosting. Founded by Matthew Bloch and Peter Taphouse in 2002, Bytemark are a provider of dedicated and cloud hosting services. Today, they host thousands of domains including, the Cabinet Office and the Royal Institution.

Last year, Bytemark invested £1.2 million in building their first wholly-owned datacentre in York at the York Business Park just north of the city. Their expansion was helped by the availability of office space suitable for hi-tech firms and easy access to power. Matthew Bloch, Managing Director explained why this was an important step for the business:

“Bytemark has been in business for over ten years and in that time we’ve had to rent space in premium facilities in Manchester and London,” explains Matthew.

“Now we can put our money where our heart is, and invest in our home town. Being completely in control of our own infrastructure means we can confidently stand behind every single aspect of our service. This benefits our existing global customers, but especially those in Yorkshire who can come and see exactly what they’re getting.”

As Bytemark have grown, they’ve also benefited from the availability of highly-skilled local talent. The University of York has a world-leading computer science department with many graduates staying on to work in local businesses including Bytemark.

Pete Taphouse, Operations Director says “it’s helped support our growth”:

“In the last 12 months we’ve grown staff numbers by 30 per cent. I’ve found it easy to fill roles locally which has helped keep recruitment costs down.”

Bytemark is just one of the many digital businesses growing and investing in the city. Revolution Software, creators of the hugely popular Broken Sword series that earned them over £60 million have seen new growth following investment in mobile platforms for they games. Isotoma, a creative technology consultancy, have also seen success with new clients including Arcadia Group.

And now, a new initiative by two York web developers is looking to put York firmly on the map as a centre for digital creativity. “DotYork” is the first major digital conference to be held in the City of York and will bring some of the UK’s top speakers in web design to the region. Rick Chadwick and Jonic Lindley are two freelance developers who intend to bring the city’s digital community together for a “day of inspiration” at the DotYork conference on 1 May.

“York is well known for its history, but it’s not exactly known for its digital industry,” says Rick. “We set up DotYork to try to change that.

“The conference is just the start of what we have planned.”

Whilst at first glance, York retains its history, scratching beneath the surface reveals more than just old bones. The digital infrastructure is in the ground. The location is right with space for growth. And the community is growing, aided by local talent.

All these things are strong indicators that York is a strong contender to be the UK’s next digital success story. If so, it would be a fitting new chapter for one of Britain’s most ancient settlements.