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Okay, this post isn’t exactly about Force.com, but it is cloud-related.

After some extremely heavy rain here in Sydney (wettest July ever recorded), a friend asked me about online backup options. It seems that the threat of flooding led him to think about protecting his data. At least he thought about it before he lost any data!

As it happens, I had recently researched this topic for my own backups. I always do nightly backups to a second hard disk, but I had wanted some extra protection against theft or fire, so uploading to the Internet sounded like a good option. I looked at various online backup providers like Mozy and Jungle Disk but noticed that services like DropBox were also promoting themselves as a form of backup. I found this interesting, because I see DropBox as a synchronization tool rather than a backup tool, but I investigated the option nonetheless.

What I found changed the way I view backups. Rather than thinking of backups as batch copies with full/incremental options, I came to appreciate that synchronization tools actually have advantages over traditional backup methods:

  • They work instantly, rather than in batches
  • The concept of full vs incremental backups is no longer relevant since they’re always updating incrementally
  • They can handle multiple computers
  • Web access is extremely useful

My selection set quickly came down to DropBox vs SugarSync, which are both “sync to the cloud” tools.

DropBox

I love DropBox and it seems that everyone at Atlassian (my workplace) loves it too. It’s great for sychronizing files between computers. I have used it for years, primarily to move files between home and work. I just drop a file into the DropBox folder and it automatically copies up to the cloud. It automatically syncs to my other computer (or, if the other computer is off, it does so as soon as it is turned on).

I love playing games with this technology. If I have two such computers in one room (eg a laptop and desktop), I delete a file on one computer and see how long it takes to delete on the other (Answer: it’s effectively instant). I’ve also deleted files via the provided web interface, which instantly deletes the file from the computer I’m using. DropBox also keeps copies of deleted files for 30 days for recovery.

DropBox is renowned for its simplicity. For example, it simply syncs anything put into the DropBox folder. However, this simplicity made DropBox less-than-perfect for my backup requirements. I’d like to specify folders anywhere on my computer that I’d like copied — my documents, my photos, my work notes. They’re all in different places and I didn’t want to change my work habits and move them all into a single DropBox directory.

SugarSync

I also came across SugarSync, which is very similar to DropBox. There’s probably many differences, but the  most significant for me were:

  • The ability to specify any folders to be synchronized
  • The ability to sync multiple computers independently
  • Not having to sync to other computers

The folder bit is self-explanatory. I can select any folders/subfolders and tell SugarSync to sync them to the cloud.

The multi-computer aspect turned out to be most handy because I can sync my home computer to the ‘cloud’ and I can also sync my work computer to the cloud. The files are kept separately and are identified by the computer from whence they came.

Here’s an example… If I’m at home and I want a file from my work computer, I can access the SugarSync web interface and download the file. I don’t need to sync whole folders from one computer to the other. In fact, I specifically don’t want this to happen — I don’t want my personal home files copied to my work computer (which administrators can access) and I don’t want all my work files copied to my home (because they’re mostly irrelevant for my home life). However, I do want the ability to access the files if necessary.

Also, the storage space purchased on SugarSync is shared between all computer uploads, without needing separate accounts for each computer.

The Choice

I decided to go with SugarSync due to the above differences, but also because I got a limited-time offer that gave a 50% discount (yes, pricing matters!). I received that offer by simply being a user of the free 5GB plan, so I’d at least recommend signing-up for that to get any future special offers.

I’m very happy with the way it has worked out. It is rare that I have to access files from other computers, but it does happen once or twice a month. I also enjoy the fact that I can access my photos via web browser, which is very handy when I’m visiting friends and want to show off. (Both DropBox and SugarSync have the ability to view photos via the web and to share photo folders with other people.)

I enjoy the piece-of-mind whenever I save a file and see the ‘sync’ icon activate, which tells me the files are already being copied elsewhere.

So, I would highly recommend using sync tools as a backup system, since they have several benefits over traditional backup. They shouldn’t be your only form of backup — I would still recommend a local hard disk backup, which has the advantage of being able to restore a computer to bootable state if something goes wrong (which the sync tools can’t do).

If you’re going to look at the above tools, feel free to use the links below. They’ll give you extra benefits and will give me a reward, too (full disclosure!). I guess it’s cheaper than advertising!

DropBox: Free 2GB DropBox account, plus bonus 250MB via this link

SugarSync: Free 5GB account, plus 500MB extra, or 10GB extra on a paid account

Oh, and remember — paper is a perfectly good form of backup, especially for short documents. It’s hard to erase and survives for years!

If you’ve found other good backup options, feel free to leave a comment!

The Bottom Line

  • Backups don’t have to be done in batches
  • Sync tools offer benefits over traditional backup techniques
  • Always have multiple forms of backup

As part of the Dreamforce 2009 Force.com campground, Salesforce hosted a hackathon with heaps of prizes.

At the ‘beginner level’, entrants just had to code a pre-defined system. Next came the challenge to integrate with social platforms. Finally, the ‘Secret Agent’ level required more sophisticated integration. Finalists integrated with Amazon and BaseCamp.

For the hackathon, I created Voiceforce with Force.com guru David Schach (X Squared on Demand) and defending champion of last year’s Dreamforce, Elaine Greco. We threw together a system that allows a Support Case to be lodged via a voice interface.

Using Dial2Do, a user can place a phone call, say “Create Case” and leave a message. A minute or so later, the Case appears in Salesforce:

voiceforce screen

It was quite amazing placing a phone call and seeing the spoken message appear within a Case. Yes — Dial2Do actually transcribed the phone call directly into a case. The flow is basically:

  • Call Dial2Do and leave a message
  • Dial2Do transcribes the message into text
  • It sends the message via a URL to a Force.com Sites page
  • The Visualforce controller extracts the message from the URL, creates a Case and inserts the message
  • Voila! It appears in the list of cases — providing a voice-to-case system

Unfortunately, Dave Carroll & co didn’t include us in the Top 3 entries, but if they saw our fantastic logos I think they would have changed their mind! (Yes, that ‘No Typing’ logo was hand-created from a mouse mat! Great work, Elaine!)

The most fun was hacking in the company of fellow Force.com developers. It was hard to type without having somebody ‘auto-correct’ my syntax! The M&Ms and bean bags helped, too!

The Bottom Line

  • Integration with Force.com is easy — both in & out
  • Force.com is a community as well as a platform

I’m pleased to announce my entry into the 2009 Force.com Cloud Developer Challenge .

The Challenge is designed to evangelize the Force.com platform, encouraging lots of people to discover, learn and use Force.com. The rules are wide open — just build something using Force.com, Visualforce and Sites (so that it is publicly accessible). It’s a very clever idea — sort of a small version of the X-Prize , with the concept that offering prizes will encourage more people to do interesting than actually directly paying people to do it!

Our Entry

So, would you like to know about our entry?

Yes, I use the word ‘Our’ rather than ‘My’ because I’m happy to say that I teamed up with David Schach, author of the X-Squared on Demand blog . Previous readers will remember that I met David some time ago when he visited Australia . Well, it just so happened that David read my previous blog entry about the Cloud Developer Challenge and dropped me an email to say he was visiting Australia again, and did I want some help?

This was a god-send, because I had been hitting lots of brick walls in my ramp-up of Visualforce and Sites knowledge, and David is an absolute expert in the subject. So, I did all the high-level UI, he did all the low-level ‘engine room’ stuff and we worked in the middle to make a very exciting site.

Introducing Daily Shinro

The site we developed is a Social Gaming Website that we call Daily Shinro .

Daily Shinro

The idea for the site began with my work team at Atlassian , where we play a daily game of SET , a really fun logic puzzle that changes each day. To keep track of our scores, we created a shared Google Apps spreadsheet with our scores and we soon discovered that it was actually just as fun to analyze the scores as to play the game!

We had been looking around for another daily puzzle that we could all play, preferably something that only took a couple of minutes and which had a scoring element. Unfortunately, very few online games took our interest. However, around that time, I had become addicted to playing Shinro Mines on the iPhone. Shinro is a little-known puzzle that has been described as a cross between Minesweeper and Sudoku.

So, once I put together the desire to enter the Cloud Developer Challenge, the need for another team puzzle with a social scoring element and my enjoyment of Shinro Mines, the choice of project became obvious!

A Social Gaming Website

There’s really two parts to Daily Shinro: the game and the social aspect.

The Game
I created the game in JavaScript using the fantastic open-source Raphael JavaScript graphics library that provides cross-browser graphics. It renders in XML for IE (boo!) and SVG for every other browser (yay!). It even supports animation.

Raphael was actually written by Dmitry Baranovskiy , a colleague of mine at Altassian. I highly recommend you look at the demo pages!

To provide a ‘daily’ concept for the game, a new puzzle is made available each day. The background picture for the puzzle is a daily selection from flickr, selected with the help of the beautiful Idée Multicolr Search Lab . It just adds a bit of spice and variety to the daily puzzle!

Social Gaming
From the very beginning, my intention was to create a ‘social’ gaming experience, based upon the spreadsheet developed by my work team. Basically, scores are calculated by how well each player beats the team average. Therefore, it needs at least two people to play the puzzle and all scores net-out to zero. This has the advantage that, if somebody doesn’t play one day, they aren’t penalized.

This scoring system is implemented at two levels in Daily Shinro — Public and ‘League’.

At the Public level, players’ scores are compared to the public average. At the League level, scores are compared only amongst your friends or office co-workers who are members of the same League.

Leagues are all about comparisons within a team rather than between teams — sort of like a private gaming site for friends. Thus, everyone can create their own League and invite friends to join. The score graphs then reflect the scores amongst members of the League.

League Score sample

The charts are generated with some magical Apex code that gathers up League scores, compares players to game averages and then outputs the results into a Google Charts URL.

I invite you all to visit www.dailyshinro.com and play the game!

If you find any bugs or strange behaviors, please let us know!

Will we win?

Ah, that’s the big question! My personal goal is to have the site ‘mentioned’ in the results pages of the Cloud Developer Challenge. That way, we’ll feel rewarded for the long hours that were put into the site.

We’ve done several things to give us an advantage in the competition:

  • We made a fun site that is attractive and enjoyable to use.
  • We utilized lots of different technologies to showcase how Force.com can ‘pull together’ capabilities from across the web to build an even richer application environment.
  • We added lots of pages of explanations , showing how we used Force.com technology. I’m hoping that this will help the folks at Salesforce.com promote the Force.com platform, which means that they’ll want lots of people visiting our site to help promote their technology. And what better way to do this than mentioning us in the final results?! (Clever, eh!)
  • Finally, there’s this blog, which I know is read by about 1000 people per month (including some legendary Salesforce staff!). Throw in David’s blog and we’re hoping to get the attention of enough people in Salesforce that we’ll get on the short-list.

Oh, one word to the judges — we fixed a few bugs in the last couple of days. So, if you visited the site already, please visit again and see it in its fully-working glory!

It’s been a tough Challenge, but it was great fun and an utterly fantastic way to learn Visualforce and Sites. I started with zero knowledge and now consider myself a competent user of those technologies. I’d also like to thank David Schach whose knowledge of Visualforce and Sites is just incredible. I couldn’t have done this site without him.

The Bottom Line

  • Visualforce and Sites are mature and capable technologies for building websites on Force.com technology
  • The Cloud Developer Challenge was an excellent way to ‘spread the word’ and get people to use the technologies
  • You’ve got to visit Daily Shinro!
  • If you know the judges, please tell them how great we are! :)

I’ve bitten bullet! I’m currently working on an entry for the Force.com Cloud Developer Challenge, which fortunately was extended to the end of August 2009.

I started a bit late because I couldn’t think of anything fun to make. Then, a few cool ideas came together and I’m spending whatever time I can on the effort. I’ll talk more about the entry in a later post, but thought it worthwhile posting my learnings as part of the process.

Visualforce

The Challenge wants something built using Force.com Sites (technical stuff) and that mostly uses Visualforce (technical stuff ).

To date, I haven’t had a business need to justify my learning Visualforce so it remained a mystery. However, that has changed with my need to crash-learn Sites and Visualforce.

The first thing I realised was how reliant Visualforce is on the Apex programming language. I had earlier postulated that Apex was at the top of the Force.com skillset, being the hardest to learn. I’m now thinking that Visualforce should be at the top, because it relies so much on Apex to add useful functionality. Using Visualforce without knowing Apex would be difficult, indeed. So, at least I did things in the ‘right’ order.

Frustration

As with developing any new application, and even moreso when trying to use a new technology, there are things that take a while to figure out. Here’s some things I learned:

Field-level security also impacts Sites. I was trying to figure out why a page wasn’t displaying some fields (they came up as blank) and why I was getting occasional "unauthorized access" errors. Yep, turned out to be field-level security settings for my Sites Guest Profile. I managed to debug it using the Field Accessibility function under Security Controls. It appears that "Guest" profiles used by Sites don’t appear in the selection set when adding a field (unless it’s a Required Field), so after creating a new field I had to go back to the Guest Profile and add access permissions. Argh!

Update: In fact, it could be a bug. The Sites and Portal profiles don’t appear when creating a custom field, but if I hit ‘Previous’ to go back to the Profiles selection screen while creating the field, the additional profiles appear. I’ve logged it as a potential bug.

The <apex:page> tag doesn’t show the page title if showHeader="false". I found it mentioned on a discussion board and mention it here in case it frustrates you, also.

Governor limitations are still our enemy but it’s slightly better under Visualforce. According to Apex documentation, the "Total number of records retrieved by SOQL queries" is 1000 x batch size for Triggers and 10,000 for Visualforce. This becomes a real stinker when used with the count() function on a SOQL query since every row is counted even though the function is only returning an integer. Thus, SELECT Count() from Contact will fail if there are more rows than allowed by the limit. This is really, really stupid. If you agree, vote for this idea to Count the SOQL count() query as a single row query.

Instant Apex in the System Log window is fantastic! I used it to test the Governor Limit with code like this:

List ls = new List();
for (integer i = 0; i < 1000; i++) {
  ls.add(new Test__c());
}
insert ls;
integer c = [select count() from Test__c];
System.Debug(c);

The Salesforce UI was really slow. Really, really slow. I used the Net tab in Firebug to see what was slowing things down, and it was continually reloading JavaScript files that should have been cached and the wholepage was taking 15+ seconds to load. Here’s a picture of the time taken after clicking the ‘New’ button to add a Custom Field:

Well, I eventually discovered that Firefox was not caching SSL pages. I turned it on (enter the address about:config then set browser.cache.disk_cache_ssl to true and now the pages load at a screaming pace!

To trigger field updates via a link, look at Scott Hemmeter’s article on how to Invoke Apex from a Custom Button using a Visualforce Page.

Stylesheets are always a pain but the Salesforce Unearthed blog has a good article Style your VisualForce Pages -for newbies that was very helpful, especially the bit about standardstylesheets="false". I also found a good article about DIV Based Layout with CSS that explains the basics of formatting a page using DIVs. Also, be sure to read the bit in the Visualforce manual that mentions how to match style id.

Static Resources have to be public. I’ll admit, I got some strange variations on this, but lots of documentation give this advice.

In fact, Salesforce Unearthed has an excellent example of how to use a Zip file as Static Resource. It lets you put your stylesheet and images in a single zip file. Fascinating!

The Bottom Line

  • There’s a lot to learn to get Sites and Visualforce doing what you envisage
  • You’ll need Apex and HTML skills (preferably CSS, too)
  • All time for the standard frustration of coding in new systems