The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for July, 2006

iRex Iliad – In The Wild

Posted by Deliverator on 26th July 2006

iRex Iliad

Well, after many delays, it is finally possible to purchase the iRex Iliad…kinda. iRex started fullfilling large business orders earlier this month, but just recently opened its e-store to individual/small quantity orders. The catch is that the website indicates a 3-5 week ship time, which really makes this a press-release “paper” launch. Still, it is now possible to at least order the Iliad for delivery, hopefully with package arrival prior to September. Even after all these delays, the Iliad is not as Delayed as Sony’s e-ink based reader, which now appears to be on track for a winter holiday release. It is possible to purchase an Iliad reader for immediate delivery. They are being resold by at least one of those business customers I mentioned earlier. A company called Arinc has slapped a bunch of aviation documents on the Iliad and is selling it as the eFlybook. Buying an Iliad now in the form of an eFlybook will cost you an additional $90 or so for the priviledge, adding to the Iliad’s already exhorbitant $810 price, although the eFlybook also comes with a 512 MB SD card to store all those aviation document.

The Sony reader, while lacking some of the Iliad’s neat features, like a pen digitizer for drawing and marking up documents, is expected to retail at a much more palateable $350-400. I am still waiting for a sincere public apology from Sony for the arrogant, contemptful behavior of intentionally rootkitting their customer’s computers with DRM laden music CDs. In my mind, Sony’s actions were downright criminal. Until I hear Sony changing their tune, I don’t intend to purchase another Sony product.

I can understand iRex’s desire to be first to market with their product, but it seems like their software is rather incomplete at this point and that many bleeding edge purchasers (they don’t call it the bleeding edge for nothing) are in for a very disappointing user experience. The software significantly under-delivers on oft repeated specifications including supported document formats, note taking/document markup abilities, page turn rates, document navigation abilities, etc. For instance, the Iliad currently lacks the simple ability to bookmark the last page you were on in a document! This, coupled with the lack of a quick way to navigate within a document will make it intolerable to try and work with long documents or read a book over multiple sessions. The poor document navigation is coupled with rediculously long page flip times. I have seen several videos that seem to indicate an average page transition time of six seconds!

iRex has long claimed that the hardware is capable of displaying a new page in around a second. This has slipped to two seconds in the final stated specs, but doesn’t take into account software overhead. From what I can gather, when viewing a PDF, the Iliad does no prerendering of upcoming pages (much less prerender them all to begin with), which means that the Iliad waits until you hit the next page button to even start calculating a bitmap with which to refresh the diplay. From what I can see, the hardware is very well designed, but the software needs significant fleshing out before this product will become interesting at any price. iRex has promised to add many features to be released as software updates, but this is coming from a company whose product slipped several release dates due apparently to software development issues and shipped with significantly less functionality than announced (including some truely basic functions). In addition, iRex is going to be facing some very stiff competition from Sony in a few months. Early adopters represent a very small portion of the potential market for something like this, and vertical market companies that deal with a lot of documents (lawyers, medical, etc.) are definitely going to evaluate functionality before placing their orders. I suspect that Iliad has at most a few months to straighten out their product or risk becoming a footnote as established brands release more polished products. I can’t help but feel that iRex would have a lot to gain from opening up the specs/software interface. Passionate user communities can add a lot to the value of a product, but only if you foster your relationship with those communities quickly enough to make a difference in the marketplace.

A perfect example of this is the iRiver series of audio players. The iRiver H120 is considered by many audiophiles to be the best hard disk based mp3 player ever made, due largely to the excellent 3rd party Rockbox firmware. The problem is that Rockbox took a long time to mature, largely because hardware documentation was poor to non-existant and the developers had to reverse engineer virtually everything. The H120 hardware was far superior to anything released by Apple at the time. The H300 series, similarly, beat Apple to market with a hard disk player with a beautiful color screen. iRiver was doing photos and videos long before Steve Job announced a photo ipod, much less one that could play videos. I would argue that both of these products failed to make a splash due to lack of real community building from iRiver, and these days that means supporting outside developers.

Don’t just build a product to meet the needs of just those consumers which you can pigeonhole into your narrow-minded imagination. Release your product openly and let the world, in all its diversity, come up with those 1001 uses of which you could never imagine. Time and again the computer world has been reinvigorated by off the wall ideas cooked up by individuals or small groups of people:

-mp3s
-blogging
-podcasting
-p2p networking
-social networking

Many of these ideas started out quite small and yet have generated many billions of dollars. Especially when reaching out into a new and largely unexplored market, there is huge value in building strong community relationships and letting the community point the way. E-ink is a new medium and can only be succesful if it lets the customers decide the message. If the e-ink companies continue with the “It’s a $800 device for reading a small selection of nominally marked down best-sellers from 2 years ago” then e-ink will die a quick death like all the other failed ebook initiatives. If, however the companies approach it as “E-ink is an amazing display technology which we have attractively packaged into this neat device, which out of the box can do x, y, z, but we would love to see what you can make it do” then I think e-ink will have a place in the market for a long time to come and I will happily shell out $800 of my hard-earned.

Posted in Books, General, Media, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

DD-WRT on WRT54GL

Posted by Deliverator on 24th July 2006

When setting up Frankenputin at Ryan’s house, we discovered that his router, a Linksys WRT54G (version 1.0) did not support port forwarding, at least not in the way we wanted. Sure, we could forward a port on the router’s ip address to an internal ip, but we couldn’t choose the internal port to map to, just the ip address. This became a problem, because Ryan has a couple servers operating within his firewall and he wanted to be able to ssh to each of them (without altering the port ssh was running upon). Rather than getting a new router, I suggested we try one of the 3rd party firmwares designed for the WRT54G. We ended up loading up DD-WRT without too much trouble. Actually, we had trouble, but it was due to a bad upstream cable connection, but that took us a while to figure out, so we ended up undeservedly cursing DD-WRT for a while before figuring out the issue. I was impressed with the plethora of advanced options, layed out very cleanly in DD-WRT’s web interface panel. I was extra impressed given how much functionality the author had crammed into the minimal version of DD-WRT that we installed in just under 3 MB of flash memory.

My initial experience with DD-WRT was really rather positive (our own bonehead cabling issues aside), so a few weeks later I decided to install DD-WRT on a Linksys WRT54GL, which I purchased at Frys. Frys is the only Seattle store where I have found the GL model being sold. So, why did I have to go to Frys to pickup a WRT54GL…I thought this thing ran on those WRT54G’s which you can get at any computer store?….

The WRT54GL is essentially a WRT54G model 4, with a new model number on the front. The L presumeably stands for Linux, and a ominously worded message on a sticker on the box warns that the enclosed device may contain open source code. Danger! Danger! A while back, Linksys pulled a bait and switch and the current products sold as the WRT54G and GS are now entirely different beast inside their little blue boxes, with much less ram and flash than the WRT54G and GS have hisorically been equiped with. The new WRT54G’s also runs an embedded OS, which I believe is VXworks. These new devices are horribly crippled compared to their earlier, identically named older bretheren. In my opinion, Linksys did nothing less than build a good reputation among consumers with a particular product and then swap it out for a piece of crap with the same name and appearance. To draw an analogy, it would be like buying a Mustang and then popping the hood, only to find that the engine had been replaced by one from a Geo Metro. Linksys continues to sell the “real” WRT54G under the WRT54GL model name. Unfortunately, virtually nobody carries this model and if they do, they are selling it for much more than the original price point of the old WRT54G’s. Still, even at a streat cost of $80 (when you can actually find one), a WRT54GL when coupled with the advanced functionality of DD-WRT is a bargin at twice the price. So, what amazing whizbang features do you get with your DD-WRT equiped router?

Well, that last question was a bit of a trick, as DD-WRT comes in several varieties. There are multiple versions, each designed for enchanced functionality in a specific area, such as VOIP, Quality of Service and VPN use. In addition, there is a standard, mini and micro edition. The micro edition is small enough that it will even run on the new crippled WRT54G version 5, although the flashing procedure is rather involved, requiring knowledge of JTAG. The Standard version is probably what most home users will want to use. One can’t flash directly to any version above mini using the web interface, as Linksys now institutes a check to ensure that a flash image is no bigger than ~3MB. So, to get your router up and running, you reset your router, flash to the mini version using the Linksys web interface, reset the router again and then flash to the final intended firmware. In my case, I chose the VPN version. So, what do you get in the VPN version? Well, I am not going to list them all, but here are a few standouts:

  • Ability to act as a client to another AP. Great if you want wire up a bunch of computers in an inconvenient location (think lan parties!).
  • Dynamic DNS support for a number of popular services. Great if you are hosting a server on a dynamic ip.
  • A number of hotspot portal solutions. Great if you are running an internet cafe, or just want your neighbors to play nice with your connection. Also supports adjusting DHCP lease time, which is a sorely needed feature in any WAP used by a cafe, as long lease times often result in a WAP becoming non-functional due to the high number of users that cycle through during a day, exhausting the lease pool
  • OpenVPN Client and Server, as well as PPTP Client and Server. Great if you want secure remote access into your lan, or want to connect your lan securely to your main business network. I am not sure how many simultaneous connections this will support, as it is doing everything in software. On the plus side, DD-WRT supports overclocking :)
  • Better Quality of Service features than many business class routers I have worked with, and this isn’t even the QoS version (which unfortunately is only available with a donation)
  • Support for static routing, BGP, OSPF and RIP2 routing
  • support for automatically mounting a remote fileshare using Samba
  • Remote logging abilities, keepalive, watchdog, etc.
  • SSH server and client
  • Static DHCP Assignment. It is surprising how many fairly high consumer/small business routers throw in everything but the kitchen sink, but leave this useful feature out
  • VLAN support
  • UPnP support for automatic configuration of router by applications with special needs.

I haven’t had a chance to play around with all of DD-WRT’s advanced features, but have been very happy with the implementation of the features I have used. I have been using the WRT54GL with DD-WRT v23sp1 VPN edition for several days now with no complaints.

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Wireless | 3 Comments »

CVS Video Cameras – Software Unlockable Once Again!

Posted by Deliverator on 24th July 2006

I have written about the $30 “One Time Use” video cameras sold by the CVS chain of drugstores on a number of occasions. I’ve had a lot of fun with my two CVS video cameras, using them in all sorts of situations where one wouldn’t want to risk a $400 camcorder, such as strapping them to the front of a hundred and twenty pound robot. I’ve been wanting to pick up maybe a dozen of these cameras to hand out to TRC members, so they can easily document their robotics experience throughout the year. The problem has been that recent versions of the video cameras have not been as easy to unlock (to download the videos) as early versions. The earliest versions (v3.40) could be unlocked with a simple software application, while the later versions (3.62, 3.70+) required a hardware attack that could sometimes fail and turn one’s camera into a nice plastic brick. Still later versions of the player (model 220 series) have been utterly impossible to unlock through any reasonable means. All that has suddenly changed…

I saw on Hack a Day that some member of the CameraHacking forum discovered that Pure Digital Technologies, makers of many of the “One Time Use” cameras sold in the US, had a public ftp server. Many businesses maintain ftp servers to offer clients an easy way to download files. The ftp server was configured to allow anonymous (non-passworded) access to anyone that wanted to connect. Apparently, at no time in the connection process was there any notice that the server was for private use only, or that the software downloadable from the server was licensed under a specific agreement/license, etc. One of the files on the server contained a sample application, complete with sourcecode for doing some rather uninteresting thing with one of the company’s line of digital still cameras. The interesting bit it that the sample application has to unlock the camera to do whatever uninteresting thing it does. The member found some code relating to the challenge/response system for unlocking the camera. He took this code and described the challenge respones algorithm to a 3rd party (who has never seen the original code), obeying strict “clean” reverse engineering principles. It is important to note that no laws were broken in the creation of this tool The result is a program called CronusKey, which can be used to calculate the response to a camera’s challenge. It is important to note that no laws were broken in the creation of this program, and that using this or other tools like Ops on your camera is not a violation either.

The CronusKey application works with many of the still cameras made by Pure Digital and it has been discovered that it works with many of the CVS Video Cameras as well. Already, the proper responses for all cameras whose challenge begins with a “04” have been found. An effort is underway to crack the remaining cameras, whose challenges begin with “03.” From what I can tell, about half of the keyspace has been exhausted and at the current rate, the correct response should be found in a few days at most. If you can’t wait that long, you can help out by grabbing the distributed key finding application and processing an untested range in the keyspace. Within a few days, it should be easy for a casual home user to download video off their camera without needing to pay CVS an additional fee for “processing.” As a friend of mine is fond of saying “It is not my job to support your broken business model.”

Posted in General, Photography, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Tech Stuff | 10 Comments »

Gateway FPD2185W 21″ LCD Review

Posted by Deliverator on 18th July 2006

After a couple weeks filled with technical frustrations, I decided that the only solutions for my problem was to engage in some good old fashioned retail therapy. I went out and bought myself a new monitor. Specifically, a Gateway FPD2185W. Yes, thats right, I *AM* a consumer whore – at least when it comes to computers/gadgets.

I purchased my monitor at Circuit City, which has an unconditional 2 week return policy. With the absolutely aweful bad pixel policies offered by most manufacturers, a LCD is one of those rare computer items that I recommend buying locally. In addition to the gateway, I was considering a 24″ Samsung and a 24″ Acer. The 24″ Samsung was a truely spectacular display, and is one of the first that I have seen with support for displaying the highest quality HD signal standard, 1080p, at its native resolution of 1920×1080. The Samsung cost quite a bit more than I wanted to spend at nearly $1100. The Acer 24″ was more tempting at around $750 (at Computerstop) and had a very nice display as well, manufactured by Hitachi, I believe. However, I was turned off by its limited ability to adjust anything beyond the most basic settings like brightness and contrast. At a mere $500, I consider the 21″ Gateway and absolute steal, particularly due to its unusual feature set.

The Good:

The Gateway 21″ features your typical VGA and DVI inputs, but also has Composite, S-Video and Component inputs. The display supports picture in picture and has a plethora of control options for adjusting the size and position of the PiP window, as well as scaling options that let you determine how you want the video on the additional inputs to be scaled to fit the screen. The controls for these functions are located on the right side of the display, rather than the front, which can make them a bit more difficult to operate, but results in a very clean and thin front bezel. Considering how rarely these functions are typically accessed, I consider this a fair tradeoff. One can still easily switch between the various inputs quickly, as the input-select button is the topmost button. The PiP and rapid switch ability could come in useful if you have one of the additional inputs hooked up to a security camera, baby monitor, etc.

The display features an integrated, powered USB 2.0 hub with 2 ports on the back and 2 ports on the side. I hooked up my wireless mouse dongle and bluetooth dongle using the ports on the back, and am using the side mounted ports for plugging in USB flash drives and my iRiver mp3 player.

Perhaps the most interesting feature almost unique to the Gateway 21″ is its highly adjustable mounting pedestal. The display can be moved up and down several feet, turned left and right quite a bit and even tilt-swiveled 90 degrees clockwise to turn that wide screen display into a very tall display indeed! The monitor comes with software called Pivot to automatically change the resolution, orientation being output by your graphics card. This pivot function might not be useful for everyone, but I find it great for viewing PDF files and other scanned documents. The Pivot software worked flawlessly with my Nvidia 6600 GS, although I did have to reinstall it to get it working again after upgrading my display drivers.

The Bad:

Sadly, the VGA input defaults to stretching to fit the whole display (and offers no ability to overide this default), so if you are outputing anything other than 1680*1050, the display will be a bit fuzy, not to mention being skewed in terms of aspect ratio. Most newer Nvidia drivers support always outputting the display’s native resolution and placing the actual requested resolution within the center of the screen. This is very useful for playing games, which may not have been designed with a wide screen display in mind. This function is specific to the Nvidia drivers, and I am not sure if a similar function is implemented in drivers from ATI or other manufacturers.

The VGA input did not result in acceptable image quality for me. I got a headache and was feeling ready to puke after about half and hour. Despite attempts at adjustment using, the on screen controls (and yes, I autoscanned to align the VGA signal with the actual pixels), ezTune software and Nvidia’s control panel, I never was able to achieve an acceptable color balance using the VGA input. The DVI input was much, much better and I wouldn’t recommend using anything but the DVI input with this monitor. Sadly, only a VGA cable is included in the box and a good quality DVI cable will set you back a pretty penny, making this budget monitor a little harder on the budget.

Many users have reported problems with this monitor when using the DVI input. I have seen many long threads with dozens of users voicing near identical complaints. It seems like versions of this display with on screen display version <= 1.11 have a nasty habbit of having the DVI input just quit working after 10 days to 2 weeks of use. This has me somewhat nervous, as my OSD version is 1.02. Gateway will replace monitors that exhibit this problem, but there is no guarantee that you will get a flawless panel back. As mentioned earlier, many manufacturers quality control standards as relating to stuck pixels are quite frankly terrible. Gateway's standard is at least 6 stuck pixels in a 1 inch sqaure to warrant replacement. If this problem rears its ugly head soon enough, I should be able to return it to Circuit City, but only if it manifests itself quickly enough. Needless to say, I am a bit nervous. There are additional reports of the DVI input not working with certain very common video cards from both Nvidia and ATI. While the display's unique hinge mechanism allows it to be rotated to a wide variety of angles, it cannot be tilted downward more than a couple of degrees. My desk has a raised platform for the monitor to rest upon and my default computer use position is leaning way back in my easy chair. The display has a very wide acceptable viewing range in both the vertical and horizontal directions (178 degrees in both, is what is advertised), but I pretty much can't achieve the optimal viewing angle without sitting bolt upright in my chair. I may consider purchasing a 3rd party mounting bracket at some point, as replacing my deskt is out of the question. The cable management bracket included with the monitor is less than worthless. It pops off at the slightest application of pressure. The VGA and DVI inputs for the monitor are on the back on the monitors left side (while facing the monitor). The display can only be rotated 90 degree counterclockwise, which causes the cables to bump against the central pedestal when you rotate the display. This not only places stress on the DVI/VGA connector, risking damage to either/both, but also will pop the cable management bracket off the back side of the pedestal, if you choose to use it. It would have been much more preferable to mount all the connectors on the back, right side of the display, facing into the display rather than down. That way, cables would not bump into the pedestal when the display is rotated. As is, I am not making use of the cable management bracked at all, and have to route cables to the right side of the display and then across in front of the pedestal, to avoid damaging the connectors or cables when rotating the display. If you buy this display, I would be very careful to watch the cables when you are rotating the display and to get longer than usual cables to provide some strain relief. It wouldn't hurt to engineer your own cable support solution, either. All in all, I am very pleased with this monitor and enjoy the number of features it provides for the price. If you don't already have a DVI cable or don't need the extra inputs, USB hub, rotation features, etc., you might find that other displays provide better value. I am just pleased to not have to use my 17" Acer any more :)

Posted in General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 47 Comments »

Email Sucks – So what else is new?

Posted by Deliverator on 18th July 2006

A number of my clients have recently started wanting to do mobile email. In most cases, they have just gone out and bought a Treo, T-Mobile MDA, Cingular 8125, other random smartphone of the week without consulting me. In general, I have found the built in email apps on these devices to be horribly lacking. There are a couple good 3rd party email clients out there. I particularly like Snappermail for the palm based Treo devices (WM devices need not apply). The other issue that I’ve had to contend with, besides poor email client software, is that a large number of my clients have grown up using MSN or AOL and are now joined at the hip to these accounts. These two providers in particular play a lot of dirty pool to lock customers into their particular brand of email hell.

AOL, for instance, makes it virtually impossible to export messages/contact lists from their software. A number of 3rd party export utilities have emerged as a result. With MSN, the latest trick they have played is not allowing the checking of pop3 accounts when not on their network. This makes it particularly difficult to check a MSN account using a very basic pop3 email client, like those included with most cell phones/smart phones. MSN has implemented proprietary support for MSN/Hotmail accounts into Outlook Express, which uses some sort of http gateway. In addition, MSN has disabled all email auto-forwarding abilities on its accounts, making it impossible to simply forward email to a pop3 account which could be checked by the portable device.

I used to work for MSN and it shames me that they have stooped to “lock-in” tactics similar to AOL, which only generate ill-will, rather than striving to encourage customer loyalty through value adding features. In general, this attitude is increasingly representative of business practice at Microsoft (think Windows Genuine Advantage/Notification) and I think it will come back to bite them in a big way.

Well, if you are well and truely locked in, or just unwilling to switch right now? One solution I stumbled upon is fastmail. Fastmail is a commercial email service provider with a couple of neat features. The one that caught my attention was its ability to retrieve email using the proprietary http gateway that MSN uses to support Outlook Express. You will need to use one of the $20/year accounts to get this feature. Essentially, fastmail will periodically download messages from the MSN account and you set up your portable device to check your fastmail account. This seemed to work well with Snappermail on a Treo 650, but your mileage may vary. The only downside to this technique is that Fastmail only fetches email from the MSN/Hotmail account on an hourly basis, which makes it difficult to have a rapid back and forth email conversation via email. Still, it is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but only just…

Posted in General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 1 Comment »

Galleries are Back Up

Posted by Deliverator on 18th July 2006

Ryan noticed that his gallery install was having some issues earlier today. On a hunch, I tried accessing mine and sure enough, my gallery was horribly, horribly broken by the move, as well. I decided I might as well upgrade to 1.5.3 while fixing the other problems, so I went ahead and steeled myself for a couple hours of head scratching and google searching. I quickly tackled a problem with absolute paths being used in one of the config files, rather than a path relative to the webroot or gallery root directories. I then encountered a few permissions problems that were quickly fixed. Finally, I encountered a problem with Gallery not being able to use short names for directories, which more or less broke every image link on the site, as I had always copy pasted the short urls, and gallery could no longer use anything other than hugely long ones. According to the configuration wizard, this was supposedly due to an issue with a .htaccess file or mod_rewrite being enabled in Apache. I would have been trying to figure that one out for hours, but for Theo’s help in eliminating those possibilities and quicky settling on the issue being with a vhosts config file.

I haven’t done much in depth checking, yet, but my gallery now appears to be working at its usual level of disfunction. If you notice any problems with the gallery or other areas of this site, please let me know.

Posted in Blogging, General, Linux, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

It’s Alive! It’s Alive! Frankenputin is Alive! Igor, champagne for everyone!

Posted by Deliverator on 16th July 2006

Silverfir.net is now being hosted on Frankenputin (new server). A few services like the mailing lists are staying on Oasis (old server) until Ryan is able to test the migration path, but the web sites are now all hosted on Frankenputin. Ryan has gotten most of the heavily trafficed sites up and will work on the minor/archived sites as time allows. Frankenputin currently resides alongside Oasis, but will hopefully be moved soon to a new facility at the offices of CascadeLink. Now that the main software changes have been made, it should be a simple matter of a dns change. Ryan uses no-ip for dns, so the changeover should be almost instant. Silverfir will incur another few hours of downtime while we physically move the server and drive arrays, but after that, hopefully Silverfir’s new home on Frankenputin will enable it to achieve uninterrupted service (at least due to the hardware) for a long time to come. Oasis will remain in place as a backup server and will be synced with Frankenputin on a regular basis. Theo has been working on a revision control system for the server which should allow for point-in-time differential backups, which should protect us against any unfortunate software or user induced malfunctions.

Posted in Blogging, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Speakeasy – No Last (2) Mile Love

Posted by Deliverator on 15th July 2006

I’ve had a frustrating couple of weeks, due largely to circumstances beyond my control. It has taken much longer than expected to get the server moved into Chris Flugstad’s office’s basement wire closet. He is giving us a very good rate, but I am beginning to think that I should bite the bullet and go with a more professional hosting solution. I would probably have to sink some $$$ into some higher capacity hard disks to get the server height down from 6u to 3u and get some rails. Paying for 6u of rackspace anywhere would not be fun. Chris doesn’t care too much about height at his office, but professional colo facilities tend to charge by the U, as well as by power usage and bandwidth. Local surplus server parts dealer Nautilus (who sold me the raid adapter and RILOE 2 board) has everything I need. I never like to do something half-baked. I would rather sink some cash and time to ensure that the server is easy to maintain in the future. Problem is, I already sunk some $$$ into the server with the assumption that I would be hosting in a space tollerant environment (either with Chris or at Ryan’s house). Now I am beginning to think I should have gone with a 2u server like a DL 380 G2 coupled with higher capacity drives. I think I will give Chris till the end of the week to get his closet cleaned up and then I will start looking at other options.

The other frustrating project that hasn’t gone as planned has been the Speakeasy DSL migration. I have needed more bandwidth for quite some time and was ready to make the switch to Comcast, but Speakeasy assured me they could get me more bandwidth by moving me to a ADSL dryline. They scheduled an install date and I rearranged appointments to stay home from work on the available date. This wasn’t too convenient for me, as the date happened to land on a day a client of mine was opening a new business. I waited as long as possible and then headed to my clients. I managed to get my parents to cover. The install tech never showed, but nobody (our dedicated install coordinater included) bothered to call and cancel the appointment or even just tell us they were running late. Turns out, QWEST had come by a couple days before and told Covad that “the customer’s phone lines are on a CSU multiplexer and there are no free pairs” and that we couldn’t get service, so Covad didn’t bother to show up, nor did they bother to tell anyone they weren’t showing up. Thing is, we already knew about the CSU and had told the installation coordinator that we couldn’t put the circuit over the same lines as the one that carries the voice circuit, but that we had a free copper pair available which was being used to run our SDSL service. All they needed to do was switch the pair at the pedestal to the new ADSL circuit at the pedestal and we would be good. The only concern I had was that the switchover occur in a coordinated fashion, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with much downtime. They scheduled a second installation date. A few days later, I got a call from QWEST, obviously coming from a call center in India, due to the accent and multi-second time lag. Some girl reading from a script informed me that a tech had concluded that my order couldn’t be completed and that she was cancelling my order, unless I wanted to pay QWEST to dig a trench and add more copper pairs. I tried to explain that we had enough copper pairs and that the tech (who I don’t think ever came to the house, but merely looked up our info on the computer, as our pedestal is in the front yard and the SNI is in the normally locked garage) had made a mistake. It took a couple escalations to get them to get them to admit that they might have been mistaken and to get them to send someone out to the house. The tech figured out that I was in fact right in the first place and offered to switch the pair over to the new circuit. I called the install coordinater and had a lovely four person chat to make sure that everyone could do what they needed in a timely manner. Covad switched an ADSL circuit to the pedestal and basically promised to come by the next day to troubleshoot and issues and finalize the install. The Qwest tech switched over the copper pair used by the SDSL circuit to the new ADSL circuit, I plugged in the modem from the self-install kit, put in one of my static IPs and I was online. Golden! So, I sent the QWEST tech home and Speakeasy told me that Covad would be by tomorrow to double check everything. A few minutes after I hung up, I noticed that my 3 mbit circuit was only delivering about 1.4 mbit of downstream bandwidth and only about 400 kbit of upstream. On top of that, the DSL modem was dropping out every few minutes and re-handshaking. I called Speakeasy up and they confirmed that they were seeing lots of line transmission errors, but not to worry, Covad would be by tomorrow to troubleshoot and yes, there should be no problem getting you the full 3 mbit despite being 10,700′ from the CO. Tomorrow came and went without Covad showing up and I called and was informed that the soonest they could come would be Friday. By this point I was getting pretty pissed off. The lack of communication, failed promises and left hand/right hand hijinks from all three parties involved really left me pretty frustrated. This was a business line and any downtime was totally unacceptable, especially given reassurances from all parties involved that the transition could be handled relatively seemlessly. Several fake escalations later (in that they resulted in a lot of soothing words and no results) and I finally got a Covad tech to come to the house, 5 days after the botched migration. He was supposed to arrive somewhere in the 8am-12 window and he arrived at 3:30 and was very eager to get his weekend started. He determined that the signal to noise margins were very low at 3 mbit, so tried 1.5. No dice. He eventually bumped it down to sub megabit on the download and 256k on the upload, which stopped the DSL modem from resetting and retraining the line every few minutes. Actual throughput is about twice what it was on SDSL on the downlink, but is almost half the speed on the uplink. We also tried connecting the modem directly at the SNI, but that only yielded improved margins of about a db. The burried service wire between the house and pedestal is probably 30 years old and original to the construction of the house. They didn’t exactly use plenum grade wiring in those days, so there is chance that the wiring between the house and pedestal is at fault, so Qwest is going to come out and run a overground wire between the pedestal and house and see if that fixes the problem, as well as check for bridge taps and other things that could degrade the signal. Other than that, my only options for improved bandwidth may be a faster SDSL line (which would cost upwards of $300/month), or switching to Comcast. Comcast has rediculously bad acceptable use policies and frankly I trust them about as far as I can shotput one of their service trucks, so I would probably provision some bandwidth elsewhere and tunnel all my traffic over it. My only other thought was to go knocking on doors of people on College Hill across the valley from my house on Woodridge and offer to pay for someone’s internet service in exchange for mounting some WiFi gear on their roof. College Hill is about a mile closer to the CO, so it should be much easier to get high speed DSL there. I have done some test shots to College Hill in the past and it was surprisingly easy to get a stable link with a very strong signal.

* begin paranoid depressed rant *

In the US, the “last mile” problem is an absolute pisser, yet other countries, which don’t have governments whose only purpose seems to be to protect the status que & existing business models, etc. seem to be able to actually get things done. The result is that the US is turning into a backwater for broadband and is loosing the technology lead in countless areas. Weren’t we supposed to be trading our manufacturing base for a high-technology leadership role? At least, that is the sound-bite that the last few administrations have been spouting at every opportunity. Instead, it seems like we have traded both and we will just be sipping our Starbucks and driving our Luxury SUVs until one day we realize that the oil has run dry, there is no money left in America (at least not for the shrinking middle class, at which point we begin class warfare all over again) and the debt collectors start foreclosing on all those variable rate mortgages that soo many of my friends thought were a good idea not so long ago. Oh, and nobody seems to remember how to get all that aging infrastructure to work, much less build new infrastructure (big dig, anyone?). After spending the last few weeks on the phone, on hold, trying to get 3 companies to remember something about yankee ingenuity, while listening to some basso-continuo background music of blood running in the streets in the middle-east, it is hard not to feel pessimistic about the future. Well, if worse comes to worse, my family has land, when the money doesn’t work, guns for when the neighbors start eating their own, and a few genuine Samurai swords for when the bullets run out.

* end paranoid depressed rant *

So, someone want to cheer me up?

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 3 Comments »

MRAM

Posted by Deliverator on 10th July 2006

It is not very often that one of those “it will be out in 3-5 years” storage technologies actually reaches the market, so I was very interested in seeing that Freescale Semiconductor is now shipping MRAM chips. The chips are a very modest 4mbit capacity, but as they are being manufactured on a very large 180 nm process, capacity will go up as more modern fabs are devoted to manufacturing. So, what is MRAM and why the hell am I excited about it?

MRAM

MRAM is a persistent memory storage technology with no moving parts. In this way it is a bit like flash memory, which is most commonly known to people as the technology behind those little USB thumb drives that you can carry on your keychain, and a bit like your hard drive, which is most commonly known to people when it crashes and eats all your data. Unlike flash, MRAM stores data magnetically, like a hard drive. Unlike a hard drive, it has no moving parts, so it is much more reliable and uses up much less power.

One of the chief problems with flash technology is that it has always lagged behind hard disk technology in terms of storage capacity. The highest capacity hard drives these days are 750 GB. The highest capacity USB flash drive one can readily purchase in a storage is 4 GB. Another problem with flash is that all flash memory can only be written to a certain number of times before a particular memory block goes bad. This can be dealt with somewhat by keeping a lot of spare blocks free and to spread the writes equally over the entire memory using “wear levelling” techniques. Still, the fundamental problem remains that if you frequently write/update data (for example, an OS’s paging file) on a flash based drive, it will die a quick death. Some specialized embedded Linux distros have been developed to minimize writes by mounting themselves read only. One early such distro is Pebble Linux, which sadly is very dated at this point. Rob Flickenger took the Pebble, adapted it for his company’s Linux based WiFi routers, and then re-thought the concept and came up with Pyramid Linux, which is based on the more modern Ubuntu Linux. MRAM could make it possible in the very near future to create reliable embedded devices with full r/w abilities.

The other major benefit of MRAM is that being a chip based technology, it should have very short seek times and be able to handle random i/o patterns, which would cause a hard drive’s r/w heads to thrash back and forth like in a dog watching Wimbeldon. Also, as a chip based technology, it should be far more reliable, due to the lack of moving parts and be virtually impossible to physically damage. In my line of work, I am often meet new clients due to failed hard drives. While I am happy to be able to eat and pay for gadgets as a result, I would frankly rather be doing things other than data recovery and implementing backup solutions. I probably see 2-3 hard drive related clients in an average week and hard drives by far remain the most common physical cause of computer hardware problems. With hard drive technology finding its way into an increasing number of electronic devices like PDAs, MP3 players, cell phones, digital video and still cameras, gps navigation systems, etc. one can only expect hard drive related problems to increase, particularly as the hard drive technology used for micro-drives is quite a bit less robust than their desktop cousins.

MRAM has the potential to offer all the benefits of magnetic hard disk technologies with all the benefits of flash based technology. There is also speculation that MRAM may be fast enough to replace traditional random access memory in a variety of applications, making it the near universal memory techology. MRAM is on the market now. Whether it has a future is anyone’s guess. The major sticking points, imo, will be:

– whether the market will pounce due to the benefits, or will stay with the devil it knows.
– Will fabricators divert capacity from manufacturing know profitable but low margin products and risk trying to manufacture higher capacity modules? MRAM is not very interesting in it current .5 MB per chip capacity. In theory, magnetic technologies can scale to far smaller sizes/greater density that flash based products. This has been demonstrated by the ever increasing capacity of hard disks relative to flash devices. We will have to see if MRAM follow a similar pattern.
– The current cost of the MRAM chips is around $25/chip. I have a hard time imagining that this part is very attractive given its small capacity and high price.

Posted in Blogging, General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

Server Yoyo

Posted by Deliverator on 5th July 2006

Ryan brought Oasis’s (old server) data drive over the other night. We struggled to get it recognized on the DL 380’s sole EIDE port (it is pretty much a 100% scsi system, with a EIDE bus only to support the cd-rom). Moving to Plan B, I mounted the disk in an old Dell desktop I had laying around, booted into Linux using Knoppix (version 5 was just released!), mounted the drive, futzed with some permissions issues and then transfered the contents of the drive to Frankenputin (new server) using Rsync. Rsync is a great tool for syncing data over a network, with built in integrity checking and differential transfers. Rsync transfered the data flawlessly, although the transfer took quite a while to complete, as the two systems were connected through a 802.11b link. I handed Ryan back the old server’s hard drive tonight and he has reinstalled it in Oasis, while we arrange to colo the new server with Chris Flugstad’s outfit, Cascade Link. Ryan has been busy setting up Apache, Mysql, etc., so we are pretty much just waiting to get our move-in date from Chris.

Posted in Blogging, General, Linux, Tech Stuff | No Comments »