TANC Field Units ready for shipping!
After some minor bugfixes on the software that makes them do their stuff, I started working on packaging. I found some standard cardboard boxes in interesting shapes and sizes at Paardekoper Verpakkingen in The Hague which fit my units surprisingly well! But of course a standard cardboard box is just too boring so I added some new material, based on the "corporate style" designed last year by Nathalie Soetens. I made custom labels for the boxes, as well as a little User Guide and a Letter from the Founder to be enclosed in each box (see picture).
For my first overseas deployment I sent off the first two Field Units. There's more paperwork than I expected, I must find a way to automate this some more.
Anyway: godspeed, Alfa3 & Alfa4, may you enjoy life in some network in Chicago and bring back some good stories (in the form of interesting data series)...
Big Data on AWS
Last Thursday I visited a very interesting meetup called 3 steps to Big Data on AWS, arranged by BigData Republic together with Amazon Web Services. The various presentations were quite inspiring for me, and I found several new insights into the techniques I might use to develop several higher-level features to add to TiNC Works! Clearly, my product is (just about) completely data-driven, and there must be scalable methods to use (automated) algorithms to make sense of the growing body of data collected daily by the Field Units.
At the end of the presentations, a sponsored Proof-of-Concept was offered to the participants. I really, really would like to take part in this but unfortunately I don't have any interesting datasets to share - yet!
Hopefully within a month or so, the Alpha Field Units out in the world will generate some interesting data - then we'll talk!
AWS Load Balancing and SSL Certificates
Any self-respecting website nowadays is secured and encrypted by using SSL encryption - the "S" in HTTPS. The current pre-alpha customer-facing portal is actually served directly from an S3 bucket on Amazon. Not really a problem, but there's no useful SSL encryption option. So today I messed around with additional AWS services to get the site deployed onto a "real" web server, and to put that web server behind a load balancer with an SSL Certificate. This turned out to be less than trivial - but I seem to be getting somewhere.
The current status is that I have a working Load Balancer (with a valid certificate associated with the company) as well as (currently a single) webserver. Now I need to move the portal's code (content, styling, scripts) over to that server. Always new challenges!
A Champagne Moment
Yes, it's finally happening! Over the last few months, the team (in particular Andrey and Roman) have worked tirelessly to get to this all-important milestone: the code running on Field Units, as well as the 3-tier Portal is ready for testing "in the real world". Shortly I will contact some of our partners to make arrangements.
Moments like this call for special attention, which I like to call a "Champagne Moment": celebrating a milestone with my friends and family. The cost of a (small) bottle vanishes in light of the time, effort, energy and hard investments that went into this phase of the development - we might as well celebrate to keep the spirits up.
@Roman and @Andrey: here's to you too! Thanks to our early-morning Scrum-like Skype meetings you were able to transform my wishes and requirements into operational code.
The first batch of Field Units
With the imminent completion of the software running on the Field Units, I thought it would be nice if all our units were assembled and activated at the same time. Some months ago I had ordered 10 custom enclosures from Germany (note the typo on the top shell), as well as a sample batch of 10 status-LED assemblies and 10 system boards from China. Combined with a 10-port USB power supply, assorted nylon screws and bolts and a batch of fresh LAN cables, I made this Christmas tree:
All status lights are green, so they're connected to the main information system out in the Cloud. From the web-based portal I can fully control the units, receive test data and create charts to show the "health" of the network:
Introducing the Alpha program
With a full batch of 10 Field Units and a working Portal, it's time to do some real-world testing. And although I've lined up a number of partner companies earlier in the development phase, there are now opportunities for other parties as well to get their hands on this technology early on - through the Alpha program:
For a limited period of time I offer interested parties this:
In return I ask your feedback on the system as-is, as well as possible suggestions for improvements and enhancements. You can find more details HERE (en) or HERE (nl), and if you're thinking about signing up, please drop us an email @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wow, it feels like it's been ages since I posed anything here - not good! It's like nothing happened but on the contrary: there's a lot going on "under the hood", which may not be as sexy as some of the other posts, but still...
An interview in a local newspaper
"Het doosje dat Jeroen Tirion op tafel legt, lijkt op een groot pak speelkaarten, maar de inhoud vertegenwoordigt een totaal andere wereld. Het bevat een instrumentje dat in staat stelt de oorzaak op te sporen van een traag werkend computersysteem."
The first lines of an article published last week in "Den Haag Centraal" - a paid publication focusing on my home town. Ms. Joke Korving interviewed me for her weekly column "Stadsmens" - city person, and I'm really happy with the result. The story presents my project, in relation to my previous activities - from high school and beyond.
Of course I hope readers will pick this up, and when my solution matches their challenges, maybe we can make a deal.
Thank you, Joke!
In the last couple of weeks, we succeeded in expanding the team, in order to deliver solid applications (much more solid than my own prototypes).
Roman is working on the components to make the TANC Field Unit do its magic, to ensure all communication is secured against abuse, and to make the new status-LED present actionable info.
Roman has a background in computer programming, and is working on this project remotely from his home town Zaporizhia in the Ukraine.
Andrey is working on the customer-facing portal, to allow users to control their Field Units, to assign tests and schedules, and to view and graph the collected data into actionable information.
Andrey graduated with honors from Donetsk National Technical University and is working on this project remotely from the Ukraine.
We're keeping track of activities, software deliveries, bugs and fixes through Slack - which is a very helpful tool for a virtual team such as this!
The LED's - they are a-blinking!
Last weekend I took out my old soldering kit, along with a bunch of jumper wires, heat shrink tubing and loads of little resistors: I wanted to make the status-LED for the TANC field Unit work! As the status-LED is just about the only output available on the box which can convey information about the TANC, this thing must be quite versatile. So instead of a single color, I opted for a three-color "RGB" LED. As the visibility of the three colors for a given voltage varies greatly between them, I needed to find the right resistance for each one to work right on 5V and in reasonable balance with the others. By making combinations of resistors in various values on the breadboard, I found a nice mix.
Soldering the resistors to jumper wires and to the LED was straightforward, I added heat shrink tubes to ensure proper insulation and to make it look more professional
Next step was to find the right group of pins on the 40-pin connector on the motherboard for controlled switching of power to the LED's. I found a nice cluster for Ground, Red, Green and Blue, and managed to control these from a C program.
Later on I also found the required libraries to control the signals from a Python program. I intend to write a little REST API so that other processes within the TANC Unit can set their signals internally without competing for control of the GPIO ports. I might even post this API as an open source project.
With the status-LED wired up, connected to the motherboard and glued into the front panel, I was finally able to complete the assembly of the first unit I consider placing at a potential customer's site - I called it "Alfa1" and put a nice sticker on it, including the MAC address (as a QR code) and the hostname.
Later this week I had a product demo (the first live demo where I actually plugged the TANC Field Unit straight into the LAN) - and it worked like a charm: as soon as my LED's started their colorful dance, the unit's registration showed up on my dashboard and I could run some real-world tests online!
During the week I visited several companies which I consider potential buyers or dealers. Without actually having anything for sale at this moment, I was free to talk about features and options, and to find out if there are particular features they would want that I could still develop.
The presentations, demos and discussions went fairly well, but No deals were drawn up yet. I may have to look for other channels for this product - I'm up against tough competition from large-scale PIM systems for Physical Infrastructure Management, even though my system is complementary and of a different scale. I should aim for a separate, distinct niche: Network Performance Management or NPM.
I had lunch with a potential customer who manages a serious number of other companies' networks and infrastructure in the area of Utrecht. The subject was the potential for new business - if we are able to jump on the information security bandwagon. Along with my old colleague Ronald we discussed whether it would be feasible to put a security scanning module on board the TANC Field Unit, to run scans on a regular basis. While it wouldn't be all that simple, it is possible to develop a small form factor system based on a different motherboard. Question is: how to capitalize on the information security worries that seems to be driving this market? We're working on that...
New software modules
As Roman is discovering and cleaning up more and more of the bells, warts and whistles I coded into my TANC prototype scheduler, he suggested we adopt a decent queuing system, e.g. to cope with while/sleep loops inside the scheduler heartbeat and task poll mechanisms. At Roman's suggestion we settled on Python RQ and rq-scheduler, on top of the Redis in-memory storage system. I already installed Redis on a TANC motherboard, and it seems to be running very well.
Contact with AWS
The TiNC Works! system is for a large part dependent on various Cloud services provided by Amazon Web Services. Apparently, AWS has a program to support startups, especially in the hardware business. Last week I met the Benelux representative responsible for this program, and yesterday I submitted TiNC Works! for their consideration. It would mean Amazon orders a large number of units, for delivery later on when they'll sell the units on Amazon. In the mean time I can use the money to increase my production volumes, which drives down the unit cost. I really really hope we can come to an agreement!
New motherboards, new enclosures
Following the success of the first "professional" aluminum enclosure I worked with Daub CNC in Germany to develop an industrial-class enclosure. As I also switched to a new, smaller version of the motherboard we had to modify the design considerably - thanks to mr. Mario Galić and his colleagues this went very quickly and very well. This week, the first batch of enclosures arrived here, for further assembly at home.
The build quality is very high, including the blue finish on the inner edges of the cutouts in the front and rear panels, as well as the laser engraving of text and logo. Now I can produce enough units for alpha customers!
Goodbye Mendix, hello Django
Earlier this summer I visited Mendix World: a showcase symposium concerning this professional development platform. Hoping to be able to produce the customer-facing portal quickly and efficiently with this platform, I arranged a license and started studying and working. The main problem I ran into was that the integration with the Amazon Services I need for this project was severely lacking. Even with the help of very experienced (Java) programmers I couldn't get a clear conversation going. None of the consulting firms I engaged, nor Mendix themselves could really help me out, so after 3 months of work I decided to ditch Mendix.
Based on my experiences with Python in the development of the TANC Field Units (which communicate almost exclusively with the Amazon Services I am now investigating the Django web framework. In addition to its huge native functionality there are many many extensions to help me construct the customer portal. As with the TANC units, I know how to write reasonable Python code which interacts with AWS using the Boto3 library - so I have high hopes.
Over the last few months, the TiNC Works! virtual team has expanded and contracted - just like a real company: Ralf is working on the TANC Operating System, as is JeroenS; Matthijs has been gracious enough to follow the Mendix certification training to prepare for development on that platform - but was quite vocal in the decision to ditch it in favor of Django. Erik has tried to help me with Mendix as well - but to no avail. Leon has been my guide and coach for the past few months in the development of the "official" business plan for TiNC Works, to develop a financial plan and to create the pitch deck I need to convince investors to part with a bit of their money to get this project to market.
And finally Roman, who is more or less my first (remote) employee: through the services of SoftGroup, Roman is working on the quality and stability of the TANC Scheduler application. Later on, he can also work on the Django platform to create the customer portal.
In preparation for presentations to potential business partners in The Netherlands, I found that the official TiNC Works! website couldn't be in English only. While quite logical in view of the presentations at The Next Web in June, many businesspeople in The Netherlands prefer to read this stuff in Dutch. So thanks to a lot of hard work by my dear Mirjam, almost all of the site is now also available in Dutch - except this blog!
The Next Web as a deadline
With the The Next Web conference rapidly approaching, I've had to make sure I'm well prepared to present myself and the new venture. TiNC Works! was accepted into the Bootstrap program, so I get a demo table on Friday 28 May and the opportunity to show my stuff.
So things are getting serious, and I've had to take serious steps too such as creating a new logo, new color scheme, and much more. It seems the subproject is working out: business cards and brochures are being printed this week, two shirts are being embroidered coming Monday, the presentation stand is ready and the presentation units (printed in cedar) have received their first coating of varnish. But that's not all:
Applying for a patent
The technology behind TiNC Works! is new, and it is a substantial improvement over existing monitoring concepts at a reduced price level. This calls for a bit of Intellectual Property protection, so I engaged a patent lawyer to help me prepare a paten application. I generated all the necessary descriptions, drawings, and claims but thanks to Mr. Haak at Octrooibureau V.O. Patents & Trademarks all documents are very professional. Yesterday I handed them over to the Octrooicentrum Nederland for registration and (hopefully) eventual recognition. Reason for some Champagne! The whole "patent pending" process can take up more than a year but that's OK: with all the details of the invention registered, it will be much easier to discuss the technical content of a partnership with investors and resellers.
With the technical description officially logged, I can now divulge more on this website and talk more freely to interested parties.
In order to quickly prepare people for what TiNC Works! can do for them, I decided we need a video - for display during The Next Web as well as incorporation into this site and associated Facebook, LinkedIn and other media platforms.
My friend Froukje Tan is a professional filmmaker, and together we devised a very cool video. As there are no technical elements in the video at all, I like to call it a teaser, enticing people to visit my demo booth and to visit this site for more information. Thanks Froukje!
Last week I've been very busy with all kinds of steps in the business development - just no so much on the software development track.
I met with a lot of people in my professional network, and discussed the TiNC Works! concept, as well as how best to approach the market and the continued development of the product. I've received a lot of very positive feedback on the product and concepts, and some very valuable advice on how to structure the business and what to prioritize.
I had a chance to demonstrate the system to a representative of the upcoming "The Next Web conference, late may in Amsterdam. My work is being considered for the so-called Bootstrap track, which will allow me to demonstrate the system, and to get one-on-one talks with investors to pith my product.
Emerging business cases
During the meetings and phone calls, a surprising number of very serious business cases came to light, in which TiNC Works! could play a crucial role for the associated companies. I'll put these business cases up on the web site, to keep track as well as to inspire!
While Jonas the 3D-man is away in Germany to study for exams, I made serious inroads in the production and procurement of beautiful metal cases: I had already found enclosures from Japan, but these were not exactly the right size - even though they were pretty and expensive. Through the miracles of the internet I now have a great contact in Germany which can deliver these enclosures directly and is able to modify them to my design - including end panels, cutouts, custom color anodization and laser engraving.
I made some renderings to visualize the end result and I'm very happy. Now I need to get a first prototype to make absolutely clear that the motherboard I'm using for the TANC will fit...
Last week I met with Nathalie Soeters to discuss company and product branding. The hexagonal symbol I'm using right now is too simplistic, and the style of my professional paperwork could be much improved. I'm looking forward for the first results!
Virtual engineering with Fusion 360
Last night I worked way into the wee small hours, tinkering with AutoDesk Fusion 360. Besides this whole 3D printing of a custom enclosure for the TaNC field units, I'm also looking into off-the-shelf or custom metal enclosures - just to hedge my bets.
I found a likely candidate from a Japanese manufacturer, and the dimensions of their standard profiles are really close to what I'm looking for. To avoid unnecessary and potentially costly mistakes, I tried to "fit" a 3D model of the motherboard I intend to use inside a 3D extrusion of the Japanese enclosure - straight from the CAD drawing thy helpfully posted. And... it fits! Including internal standoffs and mounting screws.
Today I contacted a regional reseller to get a price estimate for this enclosure, reduced in length to match my motherboard.
As an alternative, I've also contacted a local aluminum profile manufacturer to determine the cost of producing my own (adapted) version of this enclosure. This would only make sense in larger numbers: engineering the extrusion die is one thing, but the minimal extrusion order is by weight - ca. 1000 kg of material, enough for 8000 enclosures!
Oh well, let's just dream about the time I manage to sell 8k TaNC units...
More 3D filaments
After some discussions with Jones, I ordered more filaments for the production of the custom enclosures, as well as the special presentation stand.
This came in via UPS this morning:
Two reels of Ultramarine Blue PLA/PHA for the enclosures, one reel of special "copper fill" for the presentation stand and some samples of brass and bronze, for Jonas to experiment.
Apparently these metal-filled filaments can be used to print structures which can be polished to a shine!
By the way, all these filaments are produced in The Netherlands so the material mileage is lower than those cases from Japan.
Preparing for the critics
Today I wrote a lot of content for the presentation website, in part in preparation for the submission of my startup to the people at The Next Web, where I hope to get selected into the Bootstrap program. But even before that submission, I had my wife and daughter look at the content as well as style and layout. They were both favorably impressed, I hope the The Next Web people feel the same...
Playing around with 3D design software
In the coming months I intend to visit potential partners as well as a networking event, to show off my wares, so I've been discussing the creating of a display stand with Jonas. This weekend I spent some time on Autodesk Fusion 360, trying to visualize what I was thinking about. This is the result so far:
The first technical video is up!
In an effort to explain the technical features of the tnw suite, I've created a set of PowerPoint slides with detailed animations. With a lot of tinkering and tweaking, I think these animations look pretty cool too, showing off the company logo and colors as well.
I'll split these animations into short animated GIFs as well, so I can add descriptive texts on the website for the really, really interested people.
New 3D printing filaments came in
My 3D-printing partner Jonas expressed an interest in new printing materials, from FormFutura. Although most are not applicable to this project, these new materials are actually quite revolutionary: there are multiple kinds of wood, gel-like materials and even sandstone!
Further integration with social media
At some point I will have to start addressing my people network. I'm a regular user of MailChimp, so I set up a profile there for this company. Getting my existing contact details in, proved to be a bit tricky. For example Facebook does not provide a direct export facility. Following a tutorial on Youtube, I managed to get it working, but only with a lot of manual work in Excel and such. LinkedIn was much easier - they do have a direct export to CSV, which MailChimp can read.
Now a new challenge pops up: with FB and LI combined, I'm approaching the maximum list size allowed in my unpaid MailChimp account. I need to weed out duplicates before I start spamming my friends - and I will!
Apparently it is possible to add a signup form to the MailChimp list on the Weebly site (in addition of course to Facebook and LinkedIn pages. I'll be looking into that later.
Everybody enjoy the Easter Weekend, I'm trying to avoid my computer for a little while - stretch my legs, get some fresh air.
Jeroen J.A. Tirion is a networker by training. After "discovering" computers in 1982, he has been working in the field of computer networks since 1990 - with a particular focus on performance as perceived by the end-user.