October 2012 Archives

Clean your connectors!

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English: Fibre optic strands

English: Fibre optic strands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am at SNW Europe this week and have attended a number of sessions from the great and good of the storage and networking industries. There may have been news and views galore dashing round these halls, but it was a small session with a little audience that took me aback the most.

Dr Gerald Berg, market manager at cable company Rosenberger OSI - the fibre, not the TV service - hosted the session which discussed the impact of fibre optic cabling on high performance datacentres.

I learnt a number of things, such as the distance data can travel is dramatically reduced as fibre channel capacity goes up - 4GB FC can travel up to 400m whereas the next standard of 32GB (due in 2014) can only travel 100m.

I also learned that GB over Ethernet keeps the same distance due to the way it is built - 40GBE for example is made up of four 10GBE portions, meaning the statistics remain the same as one 10GBE cable.

But what amazed me was how the simplest of tasks was so frequently ignored and caused such damage to hardware performance in a datacentre - cleaning your connectors.

"I don't know why we start to talking about this today again as this is a topic we have been talking about since the very beginning of fibre optics," said an exasperated sounding Dr Berg. "I remember in the 1990s if you bought fibre optic cables, the bag came with have an instruction manual telling people to clean the fibre optic connectors before plugging them in, but it was frequently neglected."

When you first mate the cables with the kit, whether you had cleaned it or not, the network will work. As it works, no one thinks to go back and look again, or if the cable is moved, to clean it before it re-enters the network.

But each time the cable is taken out, performance drops as microscopic pieces of dust and dirt get in the way of the light beams. After the third mating of the cable, this drop becomes significant, falling by as much as a third from the data Dr Berg shared.

Imagine if the performance in your datacentre was suddenly slashed by a third, all because someone hadn't run a thread-free cleaning wipe over a connector. It is insane anyone would let this happen in their environments.

"My recommendation is use cleaning tools to be sure your infrastructure works properly and this isn't just my recommendation, these are European international standards."

Why there even has to be standards for something so commonsensical I don't know, but it is there, EN50346 for those of you who need to know how to clean.

Look, I am no domestic goddess and struggle to keep my desk tidy, let alone the thought of a datacentre, but seriously, clean your connectors people! It is madness to allow something so simple ruin performance that is needed more than ever.   

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Apple, do what the judge tells you and learn how to spell

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Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

The on-going rumble of litigation between Apple and Samsung may have made for some good headlines, but I for one am getting bored.

The iPad maker has claimed on several occasions and across several jurisdictions that Samsung Galaxy Tabs have infringed in its copyright and essentially copied elements of the design from its market leading device.

The complaint was held up in the US and led to an award of $1bn in damages - although Samsung is appealing this - and in Germany the courts also found the South Korean firm at fault, rather than the Cupertino colossus.

But on this island we call home, the UK courts threw out the case and insisted Apple place a public statement on its website to tell citizens Samsung weren't copycats.

Today Apple has put up this open letter and I am royally - well, insert your own expletive here - about how badly worded it is and how it seems to throw a middle finger up at the ruling from our courts.

Firstly, finding the statement is a nightmare. There is a tiny link at the bottom of the homepage which you would only see if searching it out.

The first paragraph sticks to the rules and explains that Samsung DID NOT infringe copyright of the iPad, but could Apple stop there? Oh no, of course not.

It prints the parts of the statement from the judge that almost sycophantically sung the praises of Apple's "extreme simplicity," "smooth edges" and "cool design" and that Samsung "are not as cool".  At this point I could still let it slide. Yes, it is nicely selective and shines a positive light on them, but in all fairness this is what the judge said.

It is the final paragraph I find a joke. It details other cases where Apple has won its law suits against Samsung, concluding with a sentence that could only be interpreted one way.

"So while the UK court did not find Samsung guilty of infringement, other courts have recognized that in the course of creating its Galaxy tablet, Samsung willfully copied Apple's far more popular iPad."   

The point of being made to publish this statement was not to repeat the accusations but to tell your UK customers you were wrong.

Before anyone says so, I know I have published the details above, but it is my job to explain the story, it was Apple's job to clear Samsung's name.

Sorry Cook and Co but the court has ruled this and if you want to sell your products on this shore, take our money and, let's face it, not pay a lot of tax in the process, you can stick to this ruling as it was intended, not use it to dig the knife it yet again to your popular rivals.

Oh, and as a final note, if you are going to publish a statement for the sole use on a UK website, use proper English. Wilfully has three L's, not four, and recognised is spelt with an 's'.

I really hope the courts stand up to the company again and insist Apple at least removes the last paragraph and makes it obvious for UK customers visiting its website.

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You might need deep pockets for 4G

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Today is a memorable day in the worlds of television and mobile. It may not be one celebrated with balloons or mourned with Robbie Williams' songs but it does mark a significant change in the technological landscape of the UK.

The last analogue television signal was switched off this morning in the final bastion of traditional TV, Northern Ireland. The 'digital switchover' from terrestrial has been making its way across the UK for five years now, knocking out signals and moving people onto Freeview, cable or satellite for their viewing pleasures, but now the change is complete meaning clearer pictures and no more Ceefax.

But, once you have shed your nostalgic tear, wipe it away and remember this means the frequencies taken up by channels one to five are now free for what we have all been waiting for... 4G mobile connectivity.

There is still some work to do and the auction to pick up these spectrum bands is not due until the end of the year but the company which can give us the speed we desire is using today's significant milestone to whet our appetites.

EE will launch its new network - albeit only in 10 cities to begin with - on 20 October, but the company today revealed its new pricing. The reaction has been somewhat mixed.

The plus point is unlimited texts and minutes are included as standard in any contract. This makes sense, with people increasingly using their data allowance to connect than calls or SMS.

The negative, however, is the seemingly stingy data allowance for the entry consumer option.

For £36 per month a user will get 500MB of 4G. Now, mobile operators kept arguing with 3G that this was more than enough for the average user - although even EE calls this the 'light use' package - but with the improvements in mobile broadband speeds, there is no doubt users will consume more data, eating up this limit quicker than they would on their previous 3G contracts.

For a more reasonable 1GB limit, the price is £41 per month, but this to me is just too high. Numerous executives of all the big mobile guns have told me the £35 mark we are at now for the top end smartphones is really the most people want to pay and, let's face it, unless they can expense it through work, they would not pay the higher prices.

The allowance and price points go up as follows: £46 for 3GB, £51 for 5GB and £56 for 8GB. Now, you may think only the craziest obsessive phone user might reach that dizzy height but with average speeds of 12Mbps promised by EE, it won't take long to gobble this up.  

EE is promising free BT Wi-Fi for users and is enticing them with EE Film, giving customers one free movie download each week.

But with coverage in so few places to start with and EE being the only ones on the market to offer the 4G capabilities, I think I will be waiting until there is a stronger network across the UK and more operators coming up with their own deals.

It was the issue I had from the start with EE being allowed to repurpose its spectrum and be the first to market. It meant it would be the one to set the pricing structure and it could charge what it liked, knowing no one else can offer the service.

When all of the operators are offering 4G, prices will be brought down and the fight will be on to win people over, which can only result in better deals for the customers.

For me, I will go with the first one offering unlimited data. So Vodafone, O2, Three, any of you tempted? 

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It's not the speed but the breadth that counts

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15 Mbps DL and 10 Mbps UL - Free WiFi @ Poetto...

15 Mbps DL and 10 Mbps UL - Free WiFi @ Poetto beach (Photo credit: zipckr)

I have been writing a feature about wireless connections (you will love it, I promise) and as a result got to have a catch up with Quocirca analyst Rob Bamforth.

We often pass the time nattering about the telecoms industry and the foolish mistakes it is making, but one thing Rob said really caught my ear.

"What gets me," he said, "and what really brings it home, is that these networks are not purely about the end possible speed. It is about how spread that speed can be."

This may sound simple, but it is amazing how often this fact is ignored.

Every network, be it mobile, Wi-Fi or fixed, talks about the speeds it can get up to. Whether it's the home connections of 100Mbps or the datacentre lines of 1Gbps, it is all about that top line speed.

The thing is, when it comes to the wireless networks, or even the fibre being rolled out across the UK, what really matters is how many people it gets to, not what speed it might, somehow, maybe, possibly reach for a select few.

Maybe it is just the old Leftie in me preaching the benefit of the many over the privilege of the few, but it is not better for the UK to have slightly slower connections that get more homes and business online, be it mobile or dug into the ground, than a couple of people with big pockets paying out to get the best?

As Rob put it: "If we could get rid of two words in the telecoms industry, it would be 'up' and 'to.'" 

I could not agree more.  

 

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Fibre is fine but wireless is now

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United Kingdom: stamp

United Kingdom: stamp (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

I will admit I am not normally one for a passionate conversation at trade shows like IP Expo. Trudging out to Earls Court is a pet hate and the ludicrous orange carpets coupled with women dressed as bumble bees (why Aerohive? Seriously, why?) get on my wick.

But, the joy of a show like this one that is much smaller than its scarier cousins in Europe or the US is you get to talk to the lesser known firms who really care about their technology, rather than just appearing on a sponsor's board.

The one that drew an enthusiastic conversation out of me today was Cambium Networks. The company used to be part of Motorola and is known for the wireless technologies it provides for customers ranging from North Sea oil rigs to front line military operations.

Perhaps it is no surprise that talking to the head of sales for the firm, Graham Bolton, meant a conversation around "why not wireless" but the thing is I agreed before any sales pitch began.

Cambium has just won an award for its rural broadband networks which have enabled residents and businesses to get 90Mbps connections without relying on fibre from the big guns like BT and Virgin Media, and at a much lower price.

Lots of these little projects are popping up around the country and really do seem to solve a problem with a lot less expense and inconvenience.

Yet, the government is still set on throwing its £530m investment for connectivity in the UK at BT. These massive projects take a lot of time, a lot of road digging and in many cases are still not getting to those areas in need.

It is the community projects, the wireless connectivity, the other innovations like we saw this week in Skye, that are solving the problem way before the made up deadline of 2015 that I can't see BT reaching, at least without some more cash to line its pockets.

Yes a strong fibre network is a good plan for the UK but it is a long term goal that is leaving a lot of people waiting in the meantime. Why not spend more of this investment with smaller projects to connect, not just rural areas, but any place missing out on decent connectivity?

If you said 'what we need is a 2Mbps fibre network by 2015' to someone in Sweden or Korea they would just laugh and, to be honest, I am fed up of going to these trades shows around the world on networking and my home being the butt of everyone's jokes, especially when the technology is there today to fix the problem.

Oh well, maybe I just haven't had enough caffeine and I swear the guy dressed as a cloud is following me. Ah trade shows, I love to hate you. 

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The networking fear will make Cisco an SDN winner

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SAN JOSE, CA - AUGUST 10:  A sign is posted in...

SAN JOSE, CA - AUGUST 10: A sign is posted in front of the Cisco Systems headquarters on August 10, 2011 in San Jose, California. Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

There have been a lot of writings around Cisco's software defined networking strategy and today I took the opportunity to talk to Ian Foddering - the company's UK CTO - about them.

Many of the accusations coming from the industry focus around the issue and belief that the networking colossus is still trying to trap people into buying their hardware, whilst appearing to be moderninsing and going down the software route too.

The "Oracle" approach as one colleague called it - look at how necessary Sun kit became in the software firm's mantra - promotes the need for software and hardware to work hand in hand for SDN and that there is no better way for them to operate smoothly than if they come from the same development labs.

The strategy is not a foolish one. Networking may not be the sexiest of the infrastructure elements, but it is the scariest. I have read numerous studies and spoken to many industry leaders about how the hardest thing to sell into a company is networking as everyone is so frightened to touch what they have, even if it isn't working, in case it brings the whole datacentre down.

If you have Cisco kit - which the vast majority of companies still do - and they offer you a way to take advantage of SDN but without having to change everything, many will leap at the chance.

It doesn't promise the best innovation though as this, as ever, is coming out of the small start-ups or "niche" companies as Foddering liked to put it. Cisco's failed attempt at acquiring Nicira - we were informed of this by a rather senior Silicon Valley networking chap - meant they lost out at buying this talent in and whilst Foddering would not say whether it would look to acquire another SDN specialist, it would clearly give Cisco a bit more credibility in the space.  

So the choice on the cards for the businesses starting to look at trialling SDN technologies is this: the big safe option which gets the job done or the riskier smaller option that could get it done even better.

I have a feeling that for Cisco this will play out well as no one is going to lose the fiddling with the network fear any time soon. I just hope it keeps its promise of working with partners or acquiring technology "if it complements the strategy" so some of these more hidden technologies see the light of day. Then the customer should win.

But, in the meantime, let the little guys keep competing with one another to be the one Cisco buys. The battle will ensure some great technologies, the eventual acquisition will ensure it makes it into the datacentre. 

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Broadband packages need to be made simple

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As a technology journalist, I have spent many years being the personal helpdesk of friends and family who are having issues with their IT. From the emails asking, "why won't my phone switch on?" to the phone calls asking "why won't my PC switch on?" I may not always have the answer, but I do my best to help them or at least point them in the right direction.

As networking editor at Computer Weekly, these questions have become even more focused to the likes of "is it worth changing mobile operators to get 4G?" to "is superfast broadband worth the extra cost?"

The more philosophical questions I can handle, or at least offer a lot of evidence around them for a friend to make an education choice. But, I am embarrassed to say, today I have been unable to convince myself of my own advice.

I have just moved house and as a result have the opportunity to get a new broadband provider. Brilliant, I thought, I live in North London so have some great speeds to choose from and a hell of a lot of ISPs serving my area!

I opted for price comparison sites to see what was available in my post code but, for starters, the lists of providers and deals seemed endless and hard to distinguish between. Then, when I clicked through to one of the deals, the attractive figures disappeared and the price quadrupled.

I called a few up that I know from my writings have good reputations, but the customer service was very poor and left me unwilling to commit.

I finally settled on one deal I thought was reasonable and I was ready to go ahead. I was then told the company in question wasn't able to check whether the phone line I had was compatible or not until the order had gone through, meaning I had to sign up for a year contract and either wait up to six days for the line to be activated or wait until the start of December for an engineer to come round.

Unsurprisingly, I decided against this one as well.

So, now I am in a quandary. Do I go with one of the big guns where I know I can get impressive speeds - if I pay through the nose for them - but the hateful experience of faceless corporate customer service or go through the complicated and arduous process of going with a smaller ISP that could take months to get set up but know if things go wrong, it will get fixed quicker?

And even if I pick one of these two options, which massive firm or little ISP do I plump for?

People like me shouldn't complain. I live in a city where there is choice, competition and the ability to get great speeds. Many places across the UK don't have such joy.

But my complaint is true for all of us, whichever corner of Great Britain you sit. Why do ISPs make it so complex to figure out what the genuine price and genuine speed of their services are?

More than half price for six months and five days, with monthly changing line rental until we say different and the bonus of a free pony if you pay for the stable after the first year? Ok, I made the last bit up, but I have had £40 Marks and Sparks vouchers waved in front of my face.

I would like to know how much it will cost me to get a connection of roughly 10Mpbs per month, including everything I need to make it work, without trying to trick me with extras, and how quickly I can get it installed. Too much to ask?

Well, even if you are the networking editor of this title, it appears so.  

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London will catch up with New York's mobile speeds

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London eye tilt shift fake miniature

London eye tilt shift fake miniature (Photo credit: hpmnick)

There is no question in my mind that London is the greatest city in the world. Biased as a resident? Perhaps, but I chose to live here when I thought it was the greatest city in the world and after six years, I believe I have been proved right.  

But all of the world's most brilliant cities have their issues. Barcelona is the capital of pickpockets, Copenhagen is too darn expensive, Edinburgh is too cold.

London is unfortunate enough to be continually compared to our cousin across the pond though; that special relationship that can only exist with one bullying the other about their superiority - yes, dear readers, I am talking about New York.

It is cleaner than us, its subway runs better than ours (although smell worse), its crime rate is lower and now it is even stealing Boris' Bikes! But as the networking editor here at Computer Weekly, it is their mobile broadband performance that has put the final nail in the coffin for me.

According to RootMetrics, the average mobile data speed sits at 8.5Mbps for downloads and 4Mpbs for uploads in New York. This figure dissipates to 2.265Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for London town.

This is a nightmare. When we are trying to compete with New York for tourist trade and business relocation, we cannot be this far behind when it comes to mobile broadband. People want to be connected - the popularity of Wi-Fi on the Underground proves that - and with more and more relying on their smartphone as their primary device, mobile broadband needs to pull up its socks.

Luckily 4G is coming. London will be able to show off significantly higher speeds once the full roll out kicks in next year and for residents taking contracts with EE, this will be even sooner.

We may come a little slower to the game New York but watch out, us Londoners always get it better in the end.  

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MNOs, want to beat the OTTs? Stop making excuses and start innovating

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NEW YORK, NY - JULY 11:  Dutch tourist Bas Der...

NEW YORK, NY - Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Ovum has been the latest analyst firm to point out the obvious today - mobile operators are in trouble because of 'over the top' services.

These OTT solutions - sounds even more dramatic when written as an acronym, yes? - have been growing in popularity with users keen to gobble up their data limits or the more sensible who stick to Wi-Fi networks like glue.

The best example is Skype, which I know I use whenever I am abroad to phone home, saving me thousands of pounds over the years that my greedy operator would have liked to have got his hands on.

But, it is not just calls. There are more and more mobile applications to enable texting to other users, avoiding the charges for SMS messages which are indeed very hefty when abroad.

This is what Ovum's particular gripe is with. It says that by 2016 operators will have lost $54bn of the revenues they would have been making from text messaging, double the loss of the $23bn it predicts the firms will lose this year.

They are some big figures to frighten the more traditional world of the mobile network provider but in the UK, I'm afraid these revenues fell away a long time ago.

When is the last time you paid for a text message? Ok, there are some people who will spend £1 on a Saturday night to vote for the latest caterwauling chav or celebrity showing off their two left feet, but in general, text messages have become part and parcel of contracts now and rarely does an individual charge get made.

I believe my standard £25 contract has 1,000 free texts included. I'll fully admit I am not popular enough to use half of those in a 30 day period but I think even teenagers would struggle to breach that by more than a couple of messages.

The days of charging 12p for every text are far behind us and the mobile operators found new ways to entice us to use money.

I concede that the likes of Facebook Chat and Twitter in general may have diminished these revenues and they must have been included in this figure, but I still believe operators have bigger fish to fry.

What the concern should be about is the lost call revenues, the changes in termination rates for operators and the new laws around roaming charges, not SMS revenues.

The real threats are the call services like Skype which as Wi-Fi becomes increasingly available, or as 4G networks begin to roll-out, could replace the noble phone call in time to come - if performance goes up first of course.

Telefonica stood up to the OTTs by launching its own app named TU Me to try and fight them at their own game but I have seen few attempts by its rivals to do the same.

It is time for the mobile operators to stop moaning about others stealing their revenues and start innovating with these types of tools themselves. Then there won't be as many reports making excuses for their losses. 

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Look at the tech, not the post code

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Huawei E220 HSDPA USB modem.

Huawei E220 HSDPA USB modem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, this week the US rattled a few sabers again with a report claiming ZTE and Huawei were not to be trusted. Apparently, using their kit could allow the Chinese to spy deep within US networks and pose a threat to national security.

ZTE has now also confirmed that its long-standing relationship with Cisco, which involved a level of part supply, has been canned, even though it was Cisco giving ZTE kit, not the other way round.

This isn't a US-only issue. The UK itself has freaked out about the companies which are rumoured to be state sponsored, but with new publicly funded research involving Huawei and large UK companies installing their kit for mobile networks, it seems fears this side of the pond are settling.

It is unsurprising that the US is posturing quite so much about companies that are growing at an exponential rate and starting to take business away from an area like networkin,g which has been dominated by a US player for so many years. But this is the way the world is heading.

The Chinese and others in the Asia Pacific region are coming up with the best innovations, have the strongest economies to fund them and globalisation is breaking down trade walls like never before.

Scaremongering about technology's origins is foolish. More and more products, both technological and otherwise, will be coming from this part of the world, alongside other emerging economies such as India and Brazil. Even Russia is growing on the world stage and what will that make the US do? Write a report that another cold war is coming?

The US claims to be embracing trade, innovation and globalisation, but to revert to the Chinese government spy defence when a rival company gets some momentum and threatens a strong homeland market is suspect to me. It also just happens to be a few weeks before an election.

I may be wrong, Huawei and ZTE might end up being proved as a cunning ruse to bring down the western governments, but I don't see Europeans panicking that the White House is monitoring our networks full of Cisco gear.

I think I will withhold judgments for a while and look at what is the best technology for the job, not at the address of the company's headquarters.  

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Telefonica says bon voyage to *some* of its jet fleet

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Gulfstream, G550 Business Jet.

Gulfstream, G550 Business Jet. (Photo credit: dirkjankraan.com)

It is hard to have sympathy for large multinational companies at the best of times, even when they are really going through times of woe, but I can have no sympathy for Telefonica which, according to Bloomberg, is taking action to cut costs that in my view shouldn't have been there in the first place.

The Spanish company that focuses on the mobile industry and offers businesses tools like video conferencing to stop enterprises having to travel around the world for meetings has made the bold decision to sell off two of its business jets.

Yes, the firm that tells us all to stay at home and talk on its phones or communicate using its video kit has corporate jets.

And it is not just that the firm has jets, it apparently has more jets than any other publicly traded company in Spain.

What is even better is it is only selling two - Telefonica actually has four - and one of them is being replaced as it had already put in the order for a new Gulfstream jet three years ago.

Telefonica hopes to make €35m for the planes but, as a firm whose debt is bigger than its market value, I think it should think about getting rid of the whole fleet and start using some of those tools it so eagerly wants us to snap up as business users, rather than spreading its wings to pop overseas. 

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