Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bits in the wires: Homeplug

By now you've probably been exposed to at least some form of connectivity that doesn't involve a traditional
wired connection.  Most likely it's Wi-Fi but what happens when you just can't get a good signal?

Maybe you've got your game room in a converted basement or want to have internet access in your shiny metal RV garage.  Running wires isn't always a viable option especially in older construction or where distance exceeds the specification for maximum cable length.  It's still 328 feet for Ethernet by the way.

Wireless networking options can be very finicky.  For one thing if you're trying to push a signal below ground level (such as our basement example) you'll soon find out the limits of an annoying little thing called wave propagation.  Nothing kills a wireless signal faster than an obstruction and good old terra firma (the ground) is one heck of an obstruction. 

Another kind of obstruction isn't as obvious.  It's called the "Faraday effect" and it can squelch a wireless signal simply because there are too many conductive surfaces that can absorb it.  Your big metal RV garage can act like a "Faraday cage" and diffuse a wireless signal before it ever gets near your wireless device.

So if network cabling and wireless aren't an option are you stuck? 

Not necessarily.  There's a third option that's become more popular and it uses wires but not the ones you typically associate with computers.  It's called Powerline networking or "Homeplug" and you've likely already guessed from the name that it has something to do with power lines. 

Powerline networking in a nutshell simply uses your home's electrical wires as a transmission medium to connect to your other network devices.  It's based on an IEEE standard just like Wi-Fi called IEEE 1901.
The most recent incarnation of the standard is called Homeplug AV2 and it promises speeds up to 500Mbps with some companies claiming to top out at Gigabit speeds.  Of course those are theoretical maximums.  A good rule of thumb is to not expect better than 1/3 of the rated speed.

Powerline networking is a great option when others fail you but it has it too has its drawbacks.  For one thing the signal can be affected by the way your house is wired or the kinds of devices you have plugged into your other wall outlets or even the outlets themselves.   

You also have to plug the adapter directly into your wall outlet so no surge suppressors or UPS's allowed.   Those devices can kill the signal. 

Don't worry about electrical surges damaging them though, most vendors have integrated power protection into the Powerline adapters.  Some models even come with a pass-through so you don't have to give up an outlet.   Just don't plug your vacuum cleaner into it unless you want to lose signal.  Powerline network connections are sensitive to transformers and that 12 Amp Dyson is a big one.

Generally you purchase Powerline networking adapters in pairs since it takes a minimum of 2 to get going.  Installation couldn't be easier as you generally just plug the adapters into a wall outlet, plug in an Ethernet cable between your networked device and the adapter and wait for your pair of adapters to sync up.  The only other thing to consider is which device you want to be the "coordinator".  A coordinator is usually the first device and will control the communication between all other powerline adapters. 

Security is simple as well.  By default, today's Powerline networking equipment is already protected with 128 bit AES encryption.  Generally that's enough unless you have power outlets outside your home or live in an apartment.  The first concern is obvious the second may not be. 

Since Powerline networking has no authentication mechanisms outside of the network name, someone who could see your Powerline adapters could just plug in and connect to your private network.  This can happen if you happen to share a fuse box with a neighbor. 

Don't be too concerned about broadcasting to your entire neighborhood though, the signal does have a limited range and likely won't make it out of the confines of your home.  In some cases it may not make it past a few rooms if you happen to have GFCI outlets on the circuit.  The signal is very sensitive to power protection circuits which is why you can't plug adapters into UPS's or surge suppressors.

If that's not enough protection for you, however.  There's one more way to secure the Powerline network.  Simply change the Powerline Network name.  That's usually accomplished by pressing a button on one of the networking devices for a period of time, waiting for status lights to flash a certain sequence then go to the other devices and repeat the procedure till the devices all sync up. 

Similar to a wireless network with a WPA passphrase securing its connections a Homeplug network is virtually impossible to hack into without more effort than your slacker neighbor has the ability or the patience for.  Think of a Homeplug network name like a combination of a WPA passphrase and an SSID on a wireless network.

Some adapters like ZyXel even come with configuration software so you can set your own network name instead of relying on an auto generated one from the previous procedure.  That's usually enough to keep prying eyes out of your Powerline network but if you're really paranoid you can also set what's known as the DAK or Device Access password.  The DAK is a 16 Letter key usually printed on the bottom of the actual device.   

That can prevent a rogue Powerline adapter from changing settings on remote adapters by preventing  changes to your Powerline adapters from a remote location unless that DAK password is entered.  In effect, it prevents someone from hijacking your powerline network.  The down side is you have to manually enter the information into your configuration  software which can be tedious if you have a lot of adapters.  

So what else do you have to worry about with Powerline Networking?

Well, much like wireless devices, compatibility can be an issue.  For one thing, even though there's one standard for Homeplug not all versions are compatible.  For example, new devices using the Homeplug AV2 standard will not talk to older Homeplug 1.0 devices. 

Earlier devices were slower and implemented security in a way that won't allow them to work with newer devices.  They can, however, be used in parallel with newer devices, the two types just won't see each other.
Also, some devices that are configured to be the "coordinator" will refuse to connect to other devices that are capable of assuming that role.  I actually have a pair of Zyxel and Cisco Homeplug AV adapters and only one of the two Cisco units will talk to the Zyxel units. 

Powerline is generally a last ditch option to get connectivity where other methods fail so I wouldn't reccommend basing an entire network topology on it.  The standard can support up to 64 individual adapters but 16 is the practical maximum for good performance. 

I've personally used Homeplug adapters for about 5 years now and I've been generally happy.   That said, I've seen my theoretical 200Mbit speeds drop to 5Mbits for no apparent reason.  Luckily, that doesn't happen too often.

It's definitely been a more reliable option than wireless especially when streaming Internet video.  Wireless signals tend to be more erratic than Powerline networks even with the advent of 802.11 N and multipath or MIMO.  Peak wireless transfer speeds do tend to be higher, however.

Some have reported reliability issues with Powerline adapters from Cisco and Netgear and it can be difficult to get even a matched pair to renegotiate security between two devices.  I've never had an issue with my Zyxel PL401A V3's but I did with My Cisco PL300's.

There is one other option that's similar to Powerline networking that uses coaxial cabling called MoCA
(Multimedia over Coax Alliance) which is promoted by cable companies (of course) and serves as the basis for many of those "whole home DVR" offerings.

Admittedly,  I've had limited experience with MoCA devices but found them to be generally more costly and far less reliable than Homeplug.

The MoCA standard is currently in version 2.1 and promises 800Mbps to 1Gbps of bandwidth but factors such as the type of Coax cable, number of splitters and quality of terminations can have a serious effect on performance.  

This latest incarnation of the standard tries to address some of these issues by trying to prioritize sensitive traffic like HD video streams using what's called PQOS or Parameterized Quality of Service.  PQOS is much like the Quality of Service found in modern network switching and routing equipment that ensures certain types of data are classified and given priority on the wire.

AT this point Powerline Networking is the more mature standard and is more focused on traditional data connectivity than streaming video and multimedia traffic like MoCA. 
Although MoCA isn't as well known as Homeplug it's worth mentioning here since it's likely your home DVR's are communicating via it's mechanisms. 

Anyway, that's it for my discussion of alternate networking options.  Check out the links below for more information.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Know your place

I've been in the IT game for awhile but unlike most of my peers I haven't spent any great amount of time in any one place.  It's not that I don't believe in long-term relationships, on the contrary my average client has been with me at least 5 years.  I'd just rather be as productive as I can be instead of treading water with busywork.

To be successful in consulting you have to learn to be attentive to your client's needs.  That means doing what they need you to do in a timely fashion and then get out of their way.  Often times that means getting out your comfort zone when they throw something at you from left field. 

You have to be adaptable and keep up with current technology but that can be difficult if you're not working in large organizations with big IT budgets. 

Still, you have to realize that whether you're dealing with 15 or 5000 users, at its core IT is always the same.  Everything scales.  The only real difference is the people providing the IT services. 

At some point most IT organizations grow beyond the capabilities of one person.  Maybe it's a specialized application that needs a dedicated person or just plain old growth.  It doesn't matter so long as everyone understands the fundamentals.

I'm not talking about acing your IT exams or memorizing all the Active Directory FSMO roles either.  No, the fundamentals I'm talking about have very little to do with technical buzzwords and everything to do with IT's role in any organization.

In short, know your place. 

That's actually a brick wall I've been running into lately especially in a profession with declining wages and a bad job market.  It seems that IT managers are more concerned about the skill of the day or how many letters follow your name than whether or not you understand IT's role.

Hot skills come and go and to be an expert in anything in IT ultimately has about as much importance as winning first place in a snowman building contest.  Nobody's going to care after tomorrow. 

It's not about the skills, it's about your ability to use them to serve your users.   So long as you have the capabilities to adapt and a point of reference it's not a big deal if you don't match up to someone's skill punch list. 

That's what I attribute whatever success I've enjoyed in my own career to.  My role has been one of service; no more, no less.  Anyone who thinks that IT is anything more than that is quite simply an egomaniac.    
Yes, IT provides the medium that powers a connected world but in the grand scheme of things it's not important for its own sake.  

We in IT simply provide the means for other people to accomplish their goals.  
I'm perfectly ok with that but many in IT aren't and they refuse to hear anything that doesn't glorify the profession.  They inflate their technical accomplishments, create needless workflows (busywork) and body block anything that threatens their fragile egos. 

I've been in the field for quite some time now and while the phrase is tired I literally have forgotten more than most IT managers know at this point.  Familiarity with a specific IT platform is only valuable so long as it remains viable to the organization.  Once it's outlived its usefulness you need to move on but the lessons learned continue to have value.  They are the true definition of skill.  

Whether you're an admin or a CIO you have to realize the value of IT has nothing to do with buzzwords or brands.  It's got everything to do with ability and attitude, however, and they aren't defined by fads.

I actually find it amusing that anyone in IT attributes the word "skill" to anything that has a brand name attached to it.  It's probably the only profession that discriminates based on marketing jargon.  When you consider that the non-IT equivalent to a tech job is an auto mechanic you start to realize how ridiculous it is to be passed over because of familiarity with one brand name over another. 

I mean, does anyone actually believe that a Chevy mechanic is incapable of working on Fords?  
Generally we don't label auto mechanics by their brand affiliation, they're just mechanics.  The skill is in being able to understand automotive systems no matter who made them.  That's because at their core they're designed the same way regardless of whose label is on that grill.

Yet as an IT worker you're led to believe that managing Cisco branded switches has taught you nothing about managing one from HP or Dell.

It's a poor interviewer that doesn't realize that I've spent my career going the extra mile and continually learning new skills to fit my client's needs.  I tend to be more practical and don't spend my nights pouring over the latest database or scripting languages. I'm too practical for that.  I'm only interested in what makes my users happy because I know my value to them depends on it.

I had an opportunity to speak with just such a misinformed IT manager recently concerning an IT support position.  When he asked  the, "Tell me about yourself" question I obliged by giving him a short synopsis of my career and my commitment to serving my users.  In fact I actually told him my view of the value of IT in an organization. 

His response? " Where do you see yourself in five years" 

In other words, he wasn't listening in fact I knew he hadn't even looked at the resume that was forwarded to him from the pleasant HR guy I'd talked to a week before.  

I could excuse the fact that he was 20 minutes late in calling me ( a time he chose by the way) or that he was interviewing me while obviously doing something else. 

What I couldn't excuse was the attitude.

 I knew I'd encountered yet another IT egomaniac who felt threatened by the truth.  At the end he asked if I had any questions and of course I asked him what his ideal candidate looked like. 

By the way hiring managers, it's a great question and people like me only ask it to see if you've been listening to us.  If I don't ask it, I don't care.

He responded with a parade of meaningless buzzwords and brand names (most of which I was familiar with by the way) and nothing about serving the customer.  That told me he was just looking for a mindless automaton and in retrospect I should have ended the call right there.  Unlike him, however, I try not to make snap judgments.

Considering this position was customer facing the number one priority should have been my attitude toward service.  That goes double when you consider how heavily customer facing my career has been to date.  Instead, he chose to focus on buzzwords.  When asked if I had any other questions I gave him the opportunity to come clean. 

I asked, "So what how do you feel about me as a candidate so far?"  His response, " Not too good"
I ended the phone call. 

I've dealt with hundreds just like him and knew we were never going to be on the same page.  Being in the field as long as I have been I've had the opportunity to be on the other side of the desk.  That means I have my own criteria in mind whenever I'm in the interview process.

 For example; If I'd feel comfortable hiring my potential boss in my own organization then I know it's going to be a good fit.  If, however, I know I'd be kicking them out the door faster than they came in...

Look IT Managers, If you're passing over dedicated, motivated and experienced candidates because their qualifications don't stroke your ego you really need to get out of the field.  Somehow, somewhere along the line you've forgotten your place and now...

You're just in the way.

Windows 8, finally a flop?

Article first published as Windows 8, Finally a Flop? on Technorati.

"We can call it now, Windows 8 is a flop" Said the unofficial "President of the Internet" Leo Laporte on his Sunday This Week in Tech podcast.
Citing the generally frigid reception by consumers to the latest Windows operating system, most pundits will point to the radical change to a touch centric interface.  The question that hasn't been asked is: is it really a case of outright rejection of the Windows 8 Modern (Metro) interface or just bad timing.

It's no secret that sales of Desktop PC's have been declining over the past few years and the rise of portable devices like the IPAD and the Smartphone have largely been responsible for it. 

After all, if you just need to get your email and do some web browsing even the cheapest tablet will do. It's also no coincidence that most tablets also happen to occupy the same price point as entry level PC's with the added convenience of portability.

So it's no mystery that Microsoft went all in on an interface that favored touch.  As much as the pundits may hate to admit it, the days of the desktop are numbered.  The popularity of tablets has shown that.  Still, is it reasonable to expect anyone to compose a novel on an  IPAD or an ASUS tablet?  Of course not but that's a temporary condition. 

What's surprising is that the tech pundits, those champions of all things new and techie don't see it.  Forgive me if I sound like a futurist but I don't think it's a stretch that gestures, predictive keyboards and voice will be the primary input devices by the end of the next decade. 

That's the future Microsoft was betting on.  Unfortunately, OEM's weren't exactly on  board with Windows 8's new interface and released hardware that couldn't leverage the touch based UI. 

Corporations, long the bulk of Windows sales, had deferred upgrade cycles and many had only recently deployed Windows 7.  To corporate IT departments there was no compelling reason to put their users through another round of upgrades so soon.  Doubly so when you consider the learning curve of the Windows 8 UI without a touch screen.  Pairing Windows 8 and traditional PC hardware was just never going to fly in cubicleland.

If you want to say Windows 8 is a flop you'd be justified to blame it on the new UI but not because it's necessarily a bad design.  OEM's had been warning Microsoft since the spring of 2012 that they wouldn't have hardware ready to take advantage of the new touch UI.  When October came around most chose to release hardware meant for Windows 7.  That resulted in making Windows  8 seem more cumbersome than revolutionary and virtually guaranteed its failure.

 The Band-Aid solution  from many OEM's was to  graft a third party extension that returned the Start Menu to the Windows 8 desktop.  If that's not an option for you the open source Classic Shell and Stardock's Start8 can offer the same functionality.  None of these options are supported by Microsoft by the way.

You can also blame Microsoft for muddying the message. 

If you want to see the purest representation of what Microsoft was after with Windows 8 look no further than the Surface RT.  Trouble is, RT isn't Windows 8.  RT has more in common with Windows phone than Windows 8 but to consumers it looks the same. 

That leaves them confused and ultimately frustrated when they find out they can't run Windows applications on something that looks like Windows.  Worse, Microsoft has done little to correct the bad perception.  Even amongst howls to either bring back the beloved "Start Menu" or allow booting directly to the desktop instead of into the tiles (as was possible in the consumer preview) Microsoft has turned a deaf ear.

Until now, that is.  There's a rumor that the next update to Windows 8 due in August and called Windows Blue (or Windows 8.1) may allow booting directly to the desktop and see the return of the Start Button (but not the Start Menu).  At this point, however, it's still just rumor. 

In the end if Windows 8 has failed it had little to do with the operating system itself.  This was not another Vista as many blogs decried in the months leading up to the launch of Windows 8.   in fact most pundits  now admit that it's actually a faster and more secure OS than its predecessor.  Rather it seems to have more to do with OEM's resistant to change and a mixed message from Microsoft.

Perhaps Windows 8 will only find vindication through the lens of history.