Work and Play: NAS-style

The last time I wrote about the network-attached storage (NAS) appliance that the good folks at Synology had sent my way, I spent a lot of time talking about how amazed I was at all the things that NAS appliances could do these days. They truly have come a very long way in the last decade or so.

Once I got done gushing about the DiskStation DS220+ that I had sitting next to my primary work area, I realized that I should probably do a post about it that amounted to more than a “fanboy rant.”

This is an attempt at “that post” and contains some relevant specifics on the DS220+’s capabilities as well as some summary words about my roughly five or six months of use.

First Up: Business

As the title of this post alluded to, I’ve found uses for the NAS that would be considered “work/business,” others that would be considered “play/entertainment,” and some that sit in-between. I’m going to start by outlining the way I’ve been using it in my work … or more accurately, “for non-play purposes.”

But first: one of the things I found amazing about the NAS that really isn’t a new concept is the fact that Synology maintains an application site (they call it the “Package Center“) that is available directly from within the NAS web interface itself:

Much like the application marketplaces that have become commonplace for mobile phones, or the Microsoft Store which is available by default to Windows 10 installations, the Package Center makes it drop-dead-simple to add applications and capabilities to a Synology NAS appliance. The first time I perused the contents of the Package Center, I kind of felt like a kid in a candy store.

Candy StoreWith all the available applications, I had a hard time staying focused on the primary package I wanted to evaluate: Active Backup for Microsoft 365.

Backup and restore, as well as Disaster Recovery (DR) in general, are concepts I have some history and experience with. What I don’t have a ton of experience with is the way that companies are handling their DR and BCP (business continuity planning) for cloud-centric services themselves.

What little experience I do have generally leads me to categorize people into two different camps:

  • Those who rely upon their cloud service provider for DR. As a generalization, there are plenty of folks that rely upon their cloud service provider for DR and data protection. Sometimes folks in this group wholeheartedly believe, right or wrong, that their cloud service’s DR protection and support are robust. Oftentimes, though, the choice is simply made by default, without solid information, or simply because building one’s own DR plan and implementing it is not an inexpensive endeavor. Whatever the reason(s), folks in this group are attached at the hip to whatever their cloud service provider has for DR and BCP – for better or for worse.
  • Those who don’t trust the cloud for DR. There are numerous reasons why someone may choose to augment a cloud service provider’s DR approach with something supplemental. Maybe they simply don’t trust their provider. Perhaps the provider has a solid DR approach, but the RTO and RPO values quoted by the provider don’t line up with the customer’s specific requirements. It may also be that the customer simply doesn’t want to put all of their DR eggs in one basket and wants options they control.
In reality, I recognize that this type of down-the-middle split isn’t entirely accurate. People tend to fall somewhere along the spectrum created by both extremes.

Microsoft 365 Data Protection

On the specific topic of Microsoft 365 data protection, I tend to sit solidly in the middle of the two extremes I just described. I know that Microsoft takes steps to protect 365 data, but good luck finding a complete description or metrics around the measures they take. If I had to recover some data, I’m relatively (but not entirely) confident I could open a service ticket, make the request, and eventually get the data back in some form.

The problem with this approach is that it’s filled with assumptions and not a lot of objective data. I suspect part of the reason for this is that actual protection windows and numbers are always evolving, but I just don’t know.

You can’t throw a stick on the internet and not hit a seemingly endless supply of vendors offering to fill the hole that exists with Microsoft 365 data protection. These tools are designed to afford customers a degree of control over their data protection. And as someone who has talked about DR and BCP for many years now, redundancy of data protection is never a bad thing.

Introducing the NAS Solution

And that brings me back to Synology’s Active Backup for Microsoft 365 package.

In all honesty, I wasn’t actually looking for supplemental Microsoft 365 data protection at the time. Knowing the price tag on some of the services and packages that are sold to address protection needs, I couldn’t justify (as a “home user”) the cost.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Synology solution/package was “free” – or rather, if you owned one of Synology’s NAS devices, you had free access to download and use the package on your NAS.

The price was right, so I decided to install the package on my DS220+ and take it for a spin.

 

Kicking The Tires

First impressions and initial experiences mean a lot to me. For the brief period of time when I was a product manager, I knew that a bad first experience could shape someone’s entire view of a product.

I am therefore very happy to say that the Synology backup application was a breeze to get setup – something I initially felt might not be the case. The reason for my initial hesitancy was due to the fact that applications and products that work with Microsoft 365 need to be registered as trusted applications within the M365 tenant they’re targeting. Most of the products I’ve worked with that need to be setup in this capacity involve a fair amount manual legwork: certificate preparation, finding and granting permissions within a created app registration, etc.

Not Synology’s backup package. From the moment you press the “Create” button and indicate that you want to establish a new backup of Microsoft 365 data, you’re provided with solid guidance and hand-holding throughout the entire setup and app registration process. Of all of the apps I’ve registered in Azure, Synology’s process and approach has been the best – hands-down. It took no more than five minutes to establish a recurring backup against a tenant of mine.

I’ve included a series of screenshots (below) that walk through the backup setup process.

What Goes In, SHOULD Come Out ...

When I would regularly speak on data protection and DR topics, I had a saying that I would frequently share: “Backup is science, but Restore is an art.” A decade or more ago, those tasked with backing up server-resident data often took a “set it and forget it” approach to data backups. And when it came time to restore some piece of data from those backups, many of the folks who took such an approach would discover (to their horror) that their backups had been silently failing for weeks or months.

Motto of the story (and a 100-level lesson in DR): If you establish backups, you need to practice your restore operations until you’re convinced they will work when you need them.

Synology approaches restoration in a very straightforward fashion that works very well (at least in my use case). There is a separate web portal from which restores and exports (from backup sets) are conducted.

And in case you’re wondering: yes, this means that you can grant some or all of your organization (or your family, if you’re like me) self-service backup capabilities. Backup and restore are handled separately from one another.

As the series of screenshots below illustrates, there are five slightly different restore presentations for each of the five areas backed up by the Synology package: (OneDrive) Files, Email, SharePoint Sites, Contacts, and Calendars. Restores can be performed from any backup set and offer the ability to select the specific files/items to recover. The ability to do an in-place restore or an export (which is downloaded by the browser) is also available for all items being recovered. Pretty handy.

Will It Work For You?

I’ve got to fall-back to the SharePoint consultant’s standard answer: it depends.

I see something like this working exceptionally well for small-to-mid-sized organizations that have smaller budgets and already overburdened IT staff. Setting up automated backups is a snap, and enabling users to get their data back without a service ticket and/or IT becoming the bottleneck is a tremendous load off of support personel.

My crystal ball stops working when we’re talking about larger companies and enterprise scale. All sorts of other factors come into play with organizations in this category. A NAS, regardless of capabilities, is still “just” a NAS at the end of the day.

My DS220+ has two-2TB drives in it. I/O to the device is snappy, but I’m only one user. Enterprise-scale performance isn’t something I’m really equipped to evaluate.

Then there are the questions of identity and Active Directory implementation. I’ve got a very basic AD implementation here at my house, but larger organizations typically have alternate identity stores, enforced group policy objects (GPOs), and all sorts of other complexities that tend to produce a lot of “what if” questions.

Larger organizations are also typically interested in advanced features, like integration with existing enterprise backup systems, different backup modes (differential/incremental/etc.), deduplication, and other similar optimizations. The Synology package, while complete in terms of its general feature set, doesn’t necessarily possess all the levers, dials, and knobs an enterprise might want or need.

So, I happily stand by my “solid for small-to-mid-sized companies” outlook … and I’ll leave it there. For no additional cost, Synology’s Active Backup for Microsoft 365 is a great value in my book, and I’ve implemented it for three tenants under my control. 

Rounding Things Out: Entertainment

I did mention some “play” along with the work in this post’s title – not something that everyone thinks about when envisioning a network storage appliance. Or rather, I should say that it’s not something I had considered very much.

My conversations with the Synology folks and trips through the Package Center convinced me that there were quite a few different ways to have fun with a NAS. There are two packages I installed on my NAS to enable a little fun.

Package Number One: Plex Server

Admittedly, this is one capability I knew existed prior to getting my DS220+. I’ve been an avid Plex user and advocate for quite a few years now. When I first got on the Plex train in 2013, it represented more potential than actual product.

Nowadays (after years of maturity and expanding use), Plex is a solid media server for hosting movies, music, TV, and other media. It has become our family’s digital video recorder (DVR), our Friday night movie host, and a great way to share media with friends.

I’ve hosted a Plex Server (self-hosted virtual machine) for years, and I have several friends who have done the same. At least a few of my friends are hosting from NAS devices, so I’ve always had some interest in seeing how Plex would perform on NAS device versus my VM.

As with everything else I’ve tried with my DS220+, it’s a piece of cake to actually get a Plex Server up-and-running. Install the Plex package, and the NAS largely takes care of the rest. The sever is accessible through a browser, Plex client, or directly from the NAS web console. 

I’ve tested a bit, but I haven’t decommissioned the virtual machine (VM) that is my primary Plex Server – and I probably won’t. A lot of people connect to my Plex Server, and that server has had multiple transcodes going while serving up movies to multiple concurrent users – tasks that are CPU, I/O, and memory intensive. So while the NAS does a decent job in my limited testing here at the house, I don’t have data that convinces me that I’d continue to see acceptable performance with everyone accessing it at once.

One thing that’s worth mentioning: if you’re familiar with Plex, you know that they have a pretty aggressive release schedule. I’ve seen new releases drop on a weekly basis at times, so it feels like I’m always updating my Plex VM.

What about the NAS package and updates? Well, the NAS is just as easy to update. Updated packages don’t appear in the Package Center with the same frequency as the new Plex Server releases, and you won’t get the same one-click server update support (a feature that never worked for me since I run Plex Server non-interactively in a VM), but you do get a link to download a new package from the NAS’s update notification:

The “Download Now” button initiates the download of an .SPK file – a Synology/NAS package file. The package file then needs to be uploaded from within the Package Center using the “Manual Install” button:

And that’s it! As with most other NAS tasks, I would be hard-pressed to make the update process any easier.

Package Number Two: Docker

If you read the first post I wrote back in February as a result of getting the DS220+, you might recall me mentioning Docker as another of the packages I was really looking forward to taking for a spin.

The concept of containerized applications has been around for a while now, and it represents an attractive alternative to establishing application functionality without an administrator or installer needing to understand all of the ins and outs of a particular application stack, its prerequisites and dependencies, etc.  All that’s needed is a container image and host.

So, to put it another way: there are literally millions of Docker container images available that you could download and get running in Docker with very little time invested on your part to make a service or application available. No knowledge of how to install, configure, or setup the application or service is required on your part.

Let's Go Digging

One container I had my eye on from the get-go was itzg’s Minecraft Server container. itzg is the online handle used by a gentleman named Geoff Bourne from Texas, and he has done all of the work of preparing a Minecraft server container that is as close to plug-and-play as containers come.

Minecraft (for those of you without children) is an immensely popular game available on many platforms and beloved by kids and parents everywhere. Minecraft has a very deep crafting system and focuses on building and construction rather than on “blowing things up” (although you can do that if you truly want to) as so many other games do.

My kids and I have played Minecraft together for years, and I’ve run various Minecraft servers in that time that friends have joined us in play. It isn’t terribly difficult to establish and expose a Minecraft server, but it does take a little time – if you do it “manually.”

I decided to take Docker for a run with itzg’s Minecraft server container, and we were up-and-running in no time. The NAS Docker package has a wonderful web-based interface, so there’s no need to drop down to a command line – something I appreciate (hey, I love my GUIs). You can easily make configuration changes (like swapping the TCP port that responds to game requests), move an existing game’s files onto/off of the NAS, and more.

I actually decided to move our active Minecraft “world” (in the form of the server data files) onto the NAS, and we ran the game from the NAS for about two months. Although we had some unexpected server stops, the NAS performed admirably with multiple players concurrently. I suspect the server stops were actually updates of some form taking place rather than a problem of some sort.

The NAS-based Docker server performed admirably for everything except Elytra flight. In all fairness, though, I haven’t been on a server of any kind yet where Elytra flight works in a way I’d describe as “well” largely because of the I/O demands associated with loading/unloading sections of the world while flying around.

Conclusion

After a number of months of running with a Synology NAS on my network, I can’t help but say again that I am seriously impressed by what it can do and how it simplifies a number of tasks.

I began the process of server consolidation years ago, and I’ve been trying to move some tasks and operations out to the cloud as it becomes feasible to do so. Where it wouldn’t have even resulted in a second thought to add another Windows server to my infrastructure, I’m now looking at things differently. Anything a NAS can do more easily (which is the majority of what I’ve tried), I see myself trying it there first. 

I once had an abundance of free time on my hands. But that was 20 – 30 years ago. Nowadays, I’m in the business of simplifying and streamlining as much as I can. And I can’t think of a simpler approach for many infrastructure tasks and needs than using a NAS.

References and Resources

The Gift of NAS

Ah, the holidays ...In all honesty, this post is quite overdue. The topic is one that I started digging into before the end of last year (2020), and in a “normal year” I’d have been more with it and shared a post sooner. To be fair, I’m not even sure what a “normal year” is, but I do know this: I’d be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone who felt that 2020 was a normal year …

The Gift?

I need to rewind a little to explain “the gift” and the backstory behind it. Technically speaking, “the gift” in questions wasn’t so much a gift as it was something I received on loan. I do have hopes that I’ll be allowed to keep it … but let me avoid putting the cart ahead of the horse.

The item I’m referring to as a “gift” is a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. Specifically speaking, it’s a Synology DiskStation DS220+ with a couple of 2TB red drives (rated for NAS conditions) to provide storage. A picture of it up-and-running appears below.

I received the DS220+ during the latter quarter of 2020, and I’ve had it running since roughly Christmastime.

How did I manage to come into possession of this little beauty? Well, that’s a bit of a story …

Brainstorming

Back in October 2020, about a week or two before Halloween, I was checking my email one day and found a new email from a woman named Sarah Lien in my inbox. In that email, Sarah introduced herself and explained that she was with Synology’s Field and Alliance Marketing. She went on to share some information about Synology and the company’s offerings, both hardware and software.

I’m used to receiving emails of this nature semi-regularly, and I use them as an opportunity to learn and sometimes expand my network. This email was slightly different, though, in that Sarah was reaching out to see if we might collaborate together in some way around Synology’s NAS offerings and software written specifically for NAS that could back up and protect Microsoft 365 data.

Normally, these sorts of situations and arrangements don’t work out all that well for me. Like everyone else, I’ve got a million things I’m working on at any given time. As a result, I usually can’t commit to most arrangements like the one Sarah was suggesting – as interesting as I think some of those cooperative efforts might turn out to ultimately be.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Sarah’s email and offer. So, I decided to take the plunge and schedule a meeting with her to see where a discussion might lead.

Rocky Beginnings

One thing I learned pretty quickly about Sarah: she’s a very friendly and incredibly understanding person. One would have to be to remain so good-natured when some putz (me) completely stands you up for a scheduled call. Definitely not the first impression I wanted to make …

I’m happy to say that the second time was a charm: I managed to actually show up on-time (still embarrassed) and Sarah and I, along with her coworker Patrick, had a really good conversation.

Synology has been in the NAS business for quite some time. I’d been familiar with the company by name, but I didn’t have any familiarity with their NAS devices.

Long story short: Sarah wanted to change that.

The three of us discussed the variety of software available for the NAS – like Active Backup for Microsoft 365 – as well as some of the capabilities of the NAS devices themselves.

Interestingly enough, the bulk of our conversation didn’t revolve around Microsoft 365 backup as I had expected. What really caused Patrick and me to geek-out was a conversation about Plex and the Synology app that turned a NAS into a Plex Server.

The Plex Flex

The Plex LogoNot familiar with Plex? Have you been living under a rock for the last half-decade?

Plex is an ever-evolving media server, and it has been around for quite some time. I bought my Plex Lifetime Pass (not required for use, but affords some nice benefits) back in September of 2013 for $75. The system was more of a promise at that point in time than a usable, reliable media platform. A lifetime pass goes for $120 these days, and the platform is highly capable and evolved.

Plex gives me a system to host and serve my media (movies, music, miscellaneous videos, etc.), and it makes it ridiculously easy to both consume and share that media with friends. Nearly every smart device has a Plex client built-in or available as a free download these days. Heck, if you’ve got a browser, you can watch media on Plex:

I’m a pretty strong advocate for Plex, and I share my media with many of my friends (including a lot of folks in the M365 community). I even organized a Facebook group around Plex to update folks on new additions to my library, host relevant conversations, share server invites, and more.

An Opportunity To Play

I’ve had my Plex Server up-and-running for years, so the idea of a NAS doing the same thing wasn’t something that was going to change my world. But I did like the idea of being able to play with a NAS to put it through the paces. Plex just became the icing on the cake.

After a couple of additional exchanges and discussions, I got lucky (note: one of the few times in my life): Sarah offered to ship me the DS220+ seen at the top of this post for me to play with and put through the paces! I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear me say that I eagerly accepted Sarah’s generous offer.

Sarah got my address information, confirmed a few things, and a week or so later I was informed that the NAS was on its way to me. Not long after that, I found this box on my front doorstep.

The Package

Finally Setting It Up

The box arrived … and then it sat for a while.

The holidays were approaching, and I was preoccupied with holiday prep and seasonal events. I had at least let Sarah know that the NAS made it to me without issue, but I had to admit in a subsequent conversation that I hadn’t yet “made time” to start playing around with it.

Sarah was very understanding and didn’t pressure me for feedback, input, or anything. In fact, her being so nice about the whole thing really started to make me feel guilty.

Guilt can be a powerful motivator, and so I finally made the time to unbox the NAS, set it up, and play around with it a little.

Here are a series of shots I took as I was unpacking the DS220+ and getting it setup.

It was very easy to get up-and-running … which is a good thing, because the instructions in the package were literally just the small little foldout shown in the slides above. I’d say the Synology folks did an excellent job simplifying what had the potential to be a confusing process for those who might not be technical powerhouses.

And eventually … power-on!

Holy Smokes!

Once I got the DS220+ running, I started paying a little more attention to all the ports, capabilities in the interface, etc. And to tell you the truth, I was simply floored.

First off, the DS220+ is a surprisingly capable NAS – much more than I originally envisioned or expected. I’ve had NAS devices before, but my experience – like those NAS devices – is severely dated. I had an old Buffalo Linkstation which I never really took a liking to. I also had a couple of Linksys Network Storage Link devices. They worked “well enough,” but the state of the art has advanced quite a bit in the last 15+ years.

Here are the basics of the DS220+:

  • Intel Celeron J4025 2-core 2GHz CPU
  • 2GB DDR4 RAM
  • Two USB 3.0 ports
  • Two gigabit RJ-45 ports
  • Two 3.5″ drive bays with RAID-1 (mirroring) support

It’s worth noting that the 2GB of RAM that is soldered into the device can be expanded to 6GB with the addition of a 4GB SODIMM. Also, the two RJ-45 ports support Link Aggregation.

I’m planning to expand the RAM ASAP (already ordered a chip from Amazon), and given that I’ve got 10Gbps optical networking in my house, and the switch next to me is pretty darned advanced (and seems to support every standard under the sun), I’m looking forward to seeing if I can “goose things” a bit with the Link Aggregation capability.

What I’m sharing here just scratches the surface of what the device is capable of. Seriously – check out the datasheet to see what I’m talking about!

But Wait - There's More!

I realize I’m probably giving off something of a fanboy vibe right now, and I’m really kind of okay with that … because I haven’t even really talked about the applications yet.

Once powered-on, the basic interface for the NAS is a browser-based pseudo desktop that appears as follows:

This interface is immediately available following setup and startup of the NAS, and it provides all manner of monitoring, logging, and performance tracking within the NAS itself. The interface can also be customized a fair bit to fit preferences and/or needs.

The cornerstone of any NAS is its ability to handle files, and the DS220+ is capable with files on so many levels. Opening the NAS Control Panel and checking-out related services in the Info Center, we see file basics like NFS and SMB … and so much more.

The above screen is dense; there is a lot of information shown and communicated. And each of the tabs and nodes in the Control Panel is similarly dense with information. Hardware geeks and numbers freaks have plenty to keep themselves busy with when examining a DS220+.

But the applications are what truly have me jazzed about the DS220+. I briefly mentioned the Office 365 backup app and the Plex Server app earlier. But those are only two from an extensive list:

Many of these apps aren’t lightweight fare by any stretch. In addition to the two I already mentioned having an interest in, I really want to put the following apps through the paces:

  • Audio Station. An audio-specific media server that can be linked with Amazon Alexa (important in our house). I don’t see myself using this long term, but I want to try it out.
  • Glacier Backup. Provides the NAS with an interface into Amazon Glacier storage – something I’ve found interesting for ages but never had an easy way to play with or test.
  • Docker. Yes, a full-on Docker container host server! If something isn’t available as a NAS app, chances are it can be found as a Docker container. I’m actually going to see how well the NAS might do as a Minecraft Server. The VM my kids and I (and Anders Rask) play on has some I/O issues. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could move it into a lighter-weight but better performing NAS/Docker environment.

Part of the reason for ordering the memory expansion was that I expect the various server apps and advanced capabilities to work the NAS pretty hard. My understanding is the that the Celeron chip the DS220+ employs is fairly capable, but tripling the memory to 6GB is doing what I can to help it along.

(Partial) Conclusion

I could go on and on about all the cool things I seem to keep finding in the DS220+ … and I might in future posts. I’d really like to be a little more directed and deliberate about future NAS posts, though. Although I believe many of you can understand and perhaps share in my excitement, this post doesn’t do much to help anyone or answer specific questions.

I suspect I’ll have at least another post or two summarizing some of the experiments (e.g., with the Minecraft Docker container) I indicated I’d like to conduct. I will also be seriously evaluating the Microsoft 365 Backup Application and its operation, as I think that is a topic many of you would be interested in reading my summary and assessment of.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks/months. I plan to cover other topics besides the NAS, but I also want to maximize my time and experience with my “gift of NAS.”

References and Resources

My Foray Into Office Feng Shui

Sometimes reorganizing a space, like a home office, generates greater benefits than just a more organized space.

Just to level-set at the start: this is not a technical post, and I’m talking about my personal office – not Microsoft Office. Now, with those disclaimers out of the way …

What Exactly Am I Writing About?

When we moved into our current home six or seven years ago, one thing I felt I needed was a proper office. In our old house, I worked out of our unfinished basement, and I’ll be honest: it was depressing. Despite my attempts to “liven up the place” with things like Christmas lights, the only natural light I received while working was provided by three small glass block windows.

And when I say the basement was “unfinished,” I really mean it. Through sheer dumb luck, the table I worked at was also the location of some sort of recessed drain access in the cement floor. I managed to get my office chair wheels stuck in that recess about half a dozen times a day. My chair would nearly tip over whenever that happened.

I think the image I’m painting is bleak enough. I’ll spare you from additional details, like when our sewer line collapsed and the resulting back-up invaded my “workplace.”

I Needed A Proper Office

Hopefully that point is obvious.

The criteria I had when we were looking for a new house six or seven years ago was an office that (a) was at ground level (or higher), and (b) had a proper window. Nothing too excessive, and easily met by my current office.

Below are some images of how my office was set up when we first moved in. Many people say it kind of looks like a college dorm room with the Christmas lighting – a point I can’t argue against.

This configuration worked well enough for a while, but over time I grew more and more dissatisfied with it for the following reasons:

  1. I didn’t make particularly good use of the space I had … and over time, piles grew on every exposed surface.
  2. I used the filing cabinet (it came with the house), but I hated the filing cabinet and the way it jutted out into the room.
  3. My wife regularly registered grievances with the one-off, mismatched furniture. And she hated all the cords everywhere. And the fact that my lighting choices were circa 1995.

Why Did I Do It That Way In The First Place?

If you’re asking that question, it’s a good one. The reason, quite simply, was time. The week that we moved into our home was also the week my wife went in for breast cancer surgery. After the surgery came chemotherapy and then radiation treatments. If you’ve never been with someone going through cancer treatment, then I’ll give you the short version: it knocks them on their ass.

Brendan and Sabrina: Easter 2012

Our children were only about five at the time, and they were still in daycare on the west side of Cincinnati – a good 30-40 minutes away. So, with my wife out of commission, I’d have to run them to daycare in the morning, come back, and then do the reverse in the evening. Between taking care of the family and trying to find time to work, reorganizing my office was the last thing I had on my mind.

But redoing my office was a topic that kept coming up again and again. And so at the start of 2019, with encouragement from my wife, I decided it was finally time to do something.

Office 2.0: The Plan

About the only aspect of my office that I really liked and wanted to keep was the Ikea furniture that I purchased and put together just before we moved in (a desk and a corner table).

Step one of “my plan” was to start getting rid of a lot of old books and associated materials. Technology consulting is a brutal field to be in from the perspective of trying to stay up-to-date on changes and new trends. Most of the books on my shelves weren’t just old, they were ancient.

For example, as much as I loved Practical Standards for Microsoft Visual Basic, it was published about 20 years ago. The things I learned from reading it are still applicable today in slightly modified form (lots of good information/guidance on code readability, documentation, etc), but extended support on VB6 ended in 2008 – over ten years ago.

I ended up getting rid of most of the books I’d bought and inherited over the years. Any that other authors and friends had signed were spared (couldn’t let those go!), as were copies of books that John Ferringer and I co-authored. Other than those that met the narrow range of criteria, any books that were clearly out-of-date were expunged.

With the books gone, I was able to start removing the ugly bookshelves. In truth, it wasn’t a seamless process by any stretch. I had to stage a lot of my office content in the entryway and living room just so I had room to maneuver and manipulate the office space.

Rebuilding from the Ashes

No fires were set; I’m speaking metaphorically when I say “ashes.”

With the old bookshelves gone, I was able to put in new ones that did a much better job utilizing my limited office space. And I was also able to address one of my wife’s standing grievances; i.e., that nothing (or very little) in my office matched.

I again decided to look for bookshelves on Ikea’s site (since my computer desk and corner table were of Ikea design), and I landed on the Brimnes Bookcase. By my rough math, I could get four of them in the office, they were available in black, and I thought they’d work equally well for both books and storage.

When my wife and I got to the Ikea store in West Chester, though, Ikea only had two of the four bookcases in stock that I had come to pick up (despite me doing an inventory check before coming up and successfully purchasing four for pickup). So the remaining two bookshelves were delivered about a week after I got the first two, and I got to work on the two bookcases I had once we got home:

Below is a comparison of the front of my office both with and without the new Brimnes bookcases. I could have used a little more clearance on the sides of the bookcases nearest the office doors, but things went in pretty well.

Let There Be Light!

There were two more things I was hoping to achieve with my office reorg. One of them was being able to finally have some clear desk space, because I always had junk galore on every surface. I didn’t want to keep things that way indefinitely, but I simply had no place to put everything with the old office.

Once I had a place for everything in my office (and quite a bit of extra space, actually), then I should be able to adhere to a “clean desk policy” – or as close as I could get to it – with a little discipline. And I’m happy to report that I’ve largely been able to do that.

The other thing I wanted to do was “grow up” a little bit – at least with my lighting. I am in my mid-to-late 40’s, so I figured it was high time I upped my lighting game.

The immediate problem was that I really still loved multicolor lighting! With some hunting, I managed to find something that nailed my needs straightaway in a very adult/grown-up fashion: Philips Hue Lighting.

Hue Lighting is incredibly flexible. I opted for the bulbs and system that supports changing colors, and it’s wonderful. Let me be clear about an important fact, though: Hue is NOT cheap. It seemed that the cheapest way to buy a bunch of bulbs was to buy a few starter kits, so I have a couple of extra lighting bridges (to tie the lighting into the home wifi) I’m not currently using. If my existing Hue bridge ever goes south, I have a couple of backups.

Since Hue ties into Alexa, I control everything from the Amazon Echo devices we have in nearly every room. And the Hue App for smartphones makes editing lighting configurations easy – and comes with some defaults that produce nice results regardless of the number of Hue bulbs you might have active in the room.

The Results

Below are some office shots with all the bookshelves in place and nearly everything the way I wanted it. Even though I’ve got my lights turned on, these were taken during the day.

To see the true effects of the Hue colored lights, I had to take some night shots:

The last three shots in the series immediately above are of the same office corner; the only real difference is the Hue lighting preset I activated in the system before taking the shots.

Conclusions

In addition to now having an office that fits me better, I discovered a thing or two I really wasn’t expecting as I undertook the overhauling and process:

  1. For me, a cluttered office contributes strongly to my feeling of being unorganized. When I started clearing my desk off and putting things away more regularly, I felt much more “with it.” The effect was almost tangible in a way I never would have expected.
  2. Having room to actually put things away is important to maintaining control over your office environment. Heck, I would argue that addage is true in most rooms and environment. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” holds its weight for me.

Now that I’ve had my office squared away for a few months, I’ve begun the process of organizing the unfinished part of the basement which acts as my server room and hardware workshop. That area needs organization probably worse than my office ever did … but I’ll save that for another time and another post.

References and Resources

  1. Book: Practical Standards for Microsoft Visual Basic
  2. Microsoft: Search Product Lifecycle
  3. LinkedIn: John Ferringer
  4. Ikea: Brimnes Bookcase
  5. Product: Philips Hue Lighting
  6. Amazon: Philips Hue Starter Kit