Category: Feature Article

Special Report – 10 Years Of the UPnP Forum

Originally posted 9 September 2009, Reposted Tuesday 20 October 2009 in conjunction with the official press release

From The Horse’s Mouth

Official press release from the UPnP Forum – PDF

In the media and blogosphere

UPnP celebrates 10 years of existence | eHomeUpgrade

 

No need to configure the router every time you want to play a PC-based or console-based online game or use Skype and Windows Live Messenger (MSN Messenger).

You can navigate music, pictures or video held on a computer or network-attached storage device from a network media player device like an Internet radio with the same ease as navigating music on an MP3 player or using the computer’s media-management software.

How has this been brought about? It has been brought about with UPnP, which is a standard for controlling and monitoring devices over an IP-based network. The standard, which is held together by the UPnP Forum, is about a known device network architecture and known device classes that are determined for particular device types.

Microsoft had been one of the founding companies for this standard but the Open-Source software movement had welcomed it with open arms and developed many endpoint programs based on this standard. The only company that has not welcomed UPnP as a technology is Apple who still prefer to keep everything within their own fences.

Now the UPnP Forum are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. The celebrations were part of their regular Steering Committee meeting at Microsoft’s head office in Redmond, USA.

Achievements – from personal Web research

The UPnP Device Architecture specification has now been taken to Version 2, which allows a device to service 2 networks and prepares UPnP for IPv6 networks. The AV specifications have been taken to version 3 for the MediaServer device so that a UPnP AV-based home media network can support broadcast recording whether immediately or on a scheduled basis, handling of premium content using digital rights management techniques, as well as support for “follow-me” functionality. It has then made the specifications more relevant to TV-based devices like digital TVs and set-top boxes / PVRs.

Most standards concerning the design of consumer network-Internet “edge” devices such as routers like CableHome 1.1, DSLHome TR064 / TR068 and Home Gateway Initiative include UPnP Internet Gateway Device as part of the mandatory set of specifications for these devices. As well, more Internet-based programs like BitTorrent clients, games and instant-messaging / VoIP programs are designed to take advantage of the UPnP Internet Gateway Device standard by being “self-configuring” at the edge. This is infact one of the primary reasons that whenever I buy or specify a router for someone’s home network, I make sure that it does properly support the UPnP Internet Gateway Device specification.

The two main games consoles that just about every teenage boy or young man has or wants to have – the Microsoft XBox360 and the Sony PlayStation 3 – both have inherent support for UPnP-based home networking. This is with automated port-forwarding for online games and now support for media playback from UPnP AV / DLNA media servers.

This leads me to the fact that the Digital Living Network Alliance have pushed forward the UPnP AV specifications and encouraged the development of server, playback and control devices based on these specifications. This development has been supported by the devices having the DLNA branding which will help consumers purchase the right products.

These situations have also been augmented with Windows XP and Vista having integrated UPnP functionality “out of the box”. Even Windows Media Player had the support for UPnP AV sharing “out of the box” since version 10. Windows 7 has taken this concept by working as a UPnP AV Media Control Point “out of the box” with functions like “Play To”.

Some standards have been achieved for the building control and security sector, mainly in the form of lighting and HVAC control, control of powered blinds and setup of network CCTV cameras. Further development will be likely to happen with the impetus of the smart-grid concept and the desire for energy efficiency and environment consciousness. This will be assisted if these standards are part of a known platform used for these applications.

Common standards have also been achieved for managing quality of service, device security and power management by define Device Classes for the applications. These can allow the creation of an application-level functionality for these particular functions.

All in all, the UPnP concept has come a long way since 1999 but there still need to be a lot more work to do to make it pervasive.

Celebrations – from communication with Toby Nixon

People that had established the UPnP Forum such as Karen Stash (original UIC President), Jawad Khaki (original executive sponsor from Microsoft) and Salim AbiEzzi (original UPnP Steering Committee chair) appeared for the celebrations.

Six people had received “Outstanding Contributor Award” – Shivaun Albright of Hewlett-Packard (Chair of Imaging Working Committee & Architecture Committee), John Ritchie of Intel (long time chair of AV Working Committee & Technical Committee),Hans-Joachim Langels of Siemens (co-chair of Home Automation & Security Working Committee), Tom McGee of Philips (second president of UIC), Karen Stash of Microsoft and Toby Nixon of Microsoft. They also gave recognition to Karen Reff of VTM who has left that company in September 2007 and moved on.

As part of the dinner party, they also viewed a slide show of images from past UPnP events and a presentation on the history of the UPnP Forum and various key milestones associated with the technology.

There will be more information “from the horse’s mouth” when the UPnP Forum run the official press release on October 18 which is the actual 10th anniversary date.

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Feature Article – Understanding the 802.11n high-bandwidth wireless network

Introduction

Now that the 802.11n high-bandwidth wireless-network standard has been declared a final standard, the price of 802.11n-compatible wireless-network hardware will come down to more affordable levels. This will lead to you considering upgrading your wireless network to 802.11n whenever the time is right to renew your home-network IT hardware.

The 802.11n access point

This works in a different manner to the 802.11a/b/g access points we are so used to. Basically, these units use a “multiple in, multiple out” methodology with “front-end diversity”. They will typically have two or three aerials with each aerial serving a particular transceiver. Some units may have an aerial serving a receiver as well as the two aerials serving two transceivers. It is totally different from “antenna diversity” which is used on most 802.11b/g routers and access points, where one transceiver works with two aerials, choosing whichever has the best signal strength.

These access points and the network client devices that connect to them also make use of “constructive multipath” to improve their quality of reception.This is different from the “destructive multipath” often experienced with FM radio and analogue television. Here, signals picked up as reflected signals are mixed with signals received by line-of-sight and “worked out” as a data stream.

The premium-priced 802.11n access points will be typically dual-band in which they can work on the existing 2.4GHz band or the newer 5GHz band. Some of this equipment may be able to work on both bands, as though there are two access points in one box.

Access Point Types

Single Band

These access points use a single access point that is set up to work on one band, typically 2.4GHz, but some of them work on 5GHz as an “add-on” access point.

Dual Band, Single Radio

These access points are like a single-band access point but can be set by the user to work on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz, but not both of the bands.

Dual Band, Dual Radio

These access points, sometimes described as “simultaneous dual-band”, are effectively two 802.11n access points in one box with one working on 2.4GHz and the other working on 5GHz.

Access Point Operating Modes

Primary Operating Modes

A typical 802.11n access point can be configured to work in one of two primary operating modes – a “compatibility” mode or an “N-only” mode.

Compatibility Mode

This mode, known as Mixed Mode or G-compatible mode allows 802.11g wireless network hardware to work from the same access point alongside 802.11n equipment. The limitation with this mode is that the wireless network works to a “worst-case” scenario with throughput that doesn’t hit the standards for an 802.11n segment. You will still have the larger coverage and service reliability with the 802.11n equipment and this benefit may pass through to 802.11g equipment

N-only Mode

This mode allows the access point to work only with 802.11n equipment and gives the equipment full wireless throughput as well as the full reliability of the standard.

Wideband vs Standard Channels

802.11n access points can run their channels as either “standard” 20MHz channels or 40MHz wideband channels which can yield higher throughput. The wideband channels also make use of a “standard” channel as a “base” channel for the double-width channel.

The preferred method of operation is that a 2.4GHz access point works on “standard” channels and most such access points will be set to have this kind of behaviour by default. But you can run these access points on the wideband channels with the limitation of poorer compatibility with 802.11g devices. If you are running a 2,4GHz access point in a manner to be compatible with regular 802.11g devices, it would be a good idea to stick to “standard” channels. If you are running 5GHz access points, you can get away with using the wideband channels and I would prefer setting up a 5GHz 802.11n extended-service-set to work this way.

The number of streams a device can handle

An 802.11n wireless device will typically be rated as being a single-stream, dual-stream or multiple-stream device. This relates to how many streams of data the wireless device can handle. All Wireless-N (802.11n) access points and routers will typically be either a dual-stream type or a multiple-stream type in the case of premium devices. Similarly, laptops with integrated Wireless-N capability; and add-on Wireless-N products will typically be dual-stream devices.

The main class of devices that will handle only one stream will be primarily-battery-powered devices like smartphones, WiFi VoIP phones, and WiFi-enabled digital cameras / portable media players because the single-stream ability won’t be intensive on these devices’ internal battery resources. Similarly, the idea of a single-stream Wireless-N network interface will also appeal to applications where size or cost do matter.

Other points to know

Best practice with dual-band equipment

If you are running dual-band equipment, especially dual-band dual-radio equipment, it would be a good idea to use the 5GHz band as N-only mode, while 2.4GHz works as compatibility mode. If you are running dual-band single-radio equipment, you will need to use older 2.4GHz equipment to run an 802.11g service set with the dual-band single-radio equipment on 5GHz N-only mode.

Use of aftermarket antennas

You can use external aftermarket antennas (aerials) with 802.11n equipment as long as all of the antennas are of the same type. This may work well if you replace the omnidirectional whip aerials with stronger omnidirectional ones. Then you may have to space the aerials further apart for the front-end diversity to work properly The main difficulty you will have is using directional aerials, in which case you may need to look for directional aerials optimised for 802.11n setups.

As well, if you are running dual-band dual-radio equipment, you will have to use antennas that can work on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands rather than antennas optimised for the 2.4GHz bands.

Shaping your 802.11n wireless network – the ideal upgrade path for your wireless network

I will be talking of WiFi networks that work on a particular technology and with a unique SSID and security parameter set as an “extended-service-set”. This allows me to cover setups where there are multiple access points working with a particular configuration.

You may be tempted to construct a multiple-access-point extended-service-set with an 802.11g access point and an 802.11n access point working in “compatibility mode” connected by an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone. The simple answer is "don’t”. You will end up with your wireless network having reliability problems especially as devices roam between the different access points and switch operating modes.

The simple answer would be to run different extended-service-sets with at least one access point for each WiFi technology. They are set up with different ESSIDs (such as SSID for the G cloud and SSID-N for the N cloud) with the wireless stations choosing between the different ESSIDs. The only thing they can have that is common is the WPA security parameters, and a common wired backbone which can be Gigabit Ethernet or HomePlug AV.

This could be achieved through deploying an existing 802.11g router that is set up as an access point and working on “SSID-G” and one channel while a newer 802.11n router working as the Internet “edge” is set to “N-only: or “compatibility” mode in the case of a single-band 2.4GHz unit, and set to “SSID-N” and a different channel.

As you evolve your wireless network, you may want to work towards establishing a 2.4GHz 802.11n “compatibility-mode” extended-service-set and a 5GHz N-only extended-service-set. You then upgrade your portable computers to work with dual-band 802.11n network interfaces or add dual-band 802.11n network adaptors to your existing equipment. The 5GHz extended-service-set will come in handy for high-throughput activity like video streaming and related applications while the 2.4GHz extended service set can work well with voice applications, smartphones, Internet radio and similar applications where throughput doesn’t matter.

If you are upgrading a wireless hotspot to 802.11n, it would be preferable to make sure your hotspot’s extended-service-set is on the 2.4GHz band and operating in “compatibility” mode so that customers can still use their existing 802.11g hardware on the wireless hotspot.

Some issues may occur with dual-band networks where the 5GHz extended-service-set may not cover the same area as the 2.4GHz extended-service-set. This is because the 5GHz band is of a higher frequency and shorter wavelength than the 2.4GHz band and is best demonstrated by AM radio stations being receivable at a longer distance compared to FM radio stations. It can be rectified by deploying a dual-band single-radio access point working on the 5GHz band in to the 5GHz extended-service-set as an infill access point.

Conclusion

Once you understand the 802.11n wireless standard and what it can and cannot do, you can make sure that you get the best out of the new standard while gaining the maximum mileage out of the existing wireless-network hardware.

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Facebook | Fighting the Battle Against Money Scams

Facebook | Fighting the Battle Against Money Scams

My comments and further explanation on this topic

This article in Facebook’s blog touches on a very common risk that can affect any social-networking site and user community. It mainly talks of the “money scam” which is really similar to the common “Nigerian” or “419” scam that many of us have encountered through the spam that comes in our mailboxes.

In the social-network version, a fraudster “sets up shop” on a Facebook or similar site and takes over a user’s account. They will then message the user’s social-network friends claiming that they are in another land and out of money. This will be via a message on the Wall or a direct message via the Inbox or a Chat session. They will typically require the friends to wire a huge amount of money to the scammer.

If you do receive one of these kinds of contacts from your friends via a social-networking Website, make a call by regular telephone to the number that you know the friend (or a person that you are sure knows them well such as their spouse / partner, child or employer) can answer such as their home or mobile number. Here, I would prefer to make a voice call rather than use text messaging. Then you can ascertain whether it is the friend who is in need or simply a scam taking place. As well, confirm the situation with mutual contacts. If the friend’s account is being compromised, tell them to change the account’s password immediately. Sometimes, companies like Facebook can lock down a compromised account and e-mail the account holder about what is going on. Then they advise the account holder to change their password immediately.

As well, know what resources do exist in your social-networking service for reporting compromised user accounts and be ready to identify “out-of-character” messages, links or pictures posted up on these services by your friends. For Facebook users, the link is http://www.facebook.com/help.php?page=420 .

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Feature Article – DLNA Network Media Series: The three-box DLNA network model

This is an advanced way of setting up a DLNA Home Media Network and requires a network media player to be able to be controlled by other devices on the same network.

It is a function integral to DLNA 1.5 compatible devices and is part of TwonkyMedia Manager (which I have reviewed here) since it started. Now it will be an integral part of Windows 7 where you can select “Play To” to have music playing on another device that you have specified. There will be many handheld terminals that have this functionality, either as part of the operating system or as add-on software.

The three boxes in this DLNA media network

Three are three logical units in this equation

Media Server

This holds media files or references to media streams and is typically represented by Windows Media Player 11 or TwonkyMedia Server which is part of TwonkyMedia Manager which I have reviewed in this blog. Also, in a PC-less solution, it can be a network-attached storage or music server device.

Media Control Point

This is primarily a software program or hardware device that can find material on any Media Servers on the home network and allow the user to “push” the content to any Media Render device on the network.

Media Renderer

The Media Renderer is similar to a UPnP-capable Media Player except that it can accept instructions via the home network to play particular media files or streams.

Typically this setup is represented by three boxes but a device can have two or three of the functions built in to its housing. An example of this is the TwonkyMedia Manager program or the PlugPlayer DLNA controller for the iPhone or any of the recent Nokia N-Series mobile phones. Here, the program has a built-in software media renderer function as well as a software media server function and control point.

UPnP AV 3-box model

What can you do

Put the netbook or another computer to good use as a media controller

An idea that would appeal to many geeks and media enthusiasts is to load a program like TwonkyMedia Manager 1.2 on to a netbook or subnotebook computer and use this computer as a remote media controller for the DLNA Home Media Network. This could mean that you could bring up pictures and video on a DLNA-capable TV or electronic picture frame using this terminal. This would end up being much easier than finding the remote control for the TV and working through an unwieldy user interface.

As well, handheld devices like smartphones, mobile Internet devices or PDAs that are equipped with WiFi functionality can work as a remote control, whether natively (in the case of phones like most of the Nokia N-Series phones) or through a software program available through their standard Web channels.

Similarly, you could use your office PC to show merchandising videos / images on your DLNA-equipped TVs and picture frames in the shop’s public space rather than going around to each TV or picture frame to bring up the right merchandising material.

Use of AV network media adaptors for music or other audio content

Typically, an AV network media adaptor like the D-Link DSM-320 or the Zyxel DMA-1100P typically doesn’t have any form of display on it. Instead it requires the user to control it using the remote control while using the attached TV as its display. This wouldn’t equate very well if you intend to play music rather than show pictures or videos using the device. Here, these devices can be managed by having the music playlists pushed to them without need for the attached television to be on.

“Follow Me”, “Party Mode” and other advanced playback techniques

Some of the DLNA media controllers allow for advanced playback techniques where program material can be “pushed” to other Media Renderer devices from a particular point in the track. This can allow for “follow-me” playback where the content which was already playing on one device is played on another user-specified device with the content stopping at the previous device; or “party mode” where content is broadcast to a group of devices. The last mode may have problems due to the data-oriented network protocols not being able to work well in supporting synchronous playback from one source.

Similarly, there could be other playback techniques like exhibiting different pictures from the same cluster on different screens.

Portable devices being part of the DLNA digital media network

Another application for this kind of operation is for a digital camera or mobile phone to “push” digital images held on that device to DLNA-compliant TV screens or picture frames. This would typically work well for “there-and-then” showing of pictures and videos taken with the device rather than downloading of pictures to a network-attached storage device.

Similarly a mobile phone or MP3 player could “push” digital music held therein to better speakers via a digital media adaptor.

The main issues and hurdles

Is the playback device able to be controlled by the home network

Not all DLNA-capable playback equipment is capable of supporting “3-box” push-mode operation at the moment. Typically, most DLNA equipment from the big names that was issued over the last two years, especially televisions and network media adaptors and home theatre receivers will support this functionality “out of the box” or through a firmware update that the customer does. Some existing equipment may support the functionality through a customer-performed firmware update or may do so out of the box. One of the best references for this capability is this list in the TwonkyForum discussion board run by TwonkyMedia, in relation to TwonkyMedia Manager.

Is the playback device set up to be controlled by the home network

Another thing to look for with playback devices is whether the function is enabled even though the device has the function. This may be looked at in the form of a Settings menu option in the Network Settings Menu or similar menu which may be labeled “Digital Media Renderer Mode”, “DLNA Remote Control”, “Network Media Control” or something similar. If this mode is set to on, the device can respond to DLNA requests.

Some devices have the function disabled in the default factory setup while others may allow this kind of control by default.

Conclusion

Once you have this issue worked out, you can then use a handheld device, computer or dedicated remote controller to cause media to play on other home network devices.

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Feature Article – DLNA Network Media Series: Integrating classical music in to your digital-music collection

Beethoven ….. Mozart ……. Schubert ……. Wagner ……… Handel …….. Vivaldi ……. How can you have them in your online music collection?

You may already have established a music collection centred around classical music and / or opera; with at least a few of those Deutsche Grammophon recordings or are just cottoning on to the Great Classics as a break from the regular popular music. Yet you want to add the music in to your digital collection for use on your iPod / portable MP3 player or to play through your DLNA-based home media network. The main problem you will end up with is how to locate a specific work or movement / aria / chorus in your collection; or material by a specific composer.

It may not appeal to those of you who prefer to listen to classical music from an LP or CD through very fine equipment, especially from audiophile-quality recordings or boutique labels; but those of you who are used to and don’t mind listening to classical music from the radio or cassettes or or play classical LPs and CDs through commonly-available equipment may be accepting of this practice.

Most music-management software pitched at classical-music enthusiasts works on a presumption that the music collection is exclusively focused to this genre. But the reality for most music collections is that there is a mixture of the classical-music genre as well as jazz and popular music existing in the collections. It also includes situations where there are recordings that feature a performer performing a collection of classical and other pieces, recordings featuring highlighted works by a particular composer or “themed” classical-music albums with pieces based on a common theme like a “Most Favourite Selection”; music mood or composition era.

How will you be integrating classical music in to your digital music collection

You may buy the music as MP3 files from an online music download service like what is currently being offered by Deutsche Grammophon or may simply buy classical-music CDs and “rip” them to your computer’s hard disk. In some cases, you may copy music you have on legacy analogue media like LPs to your hard disk.

What standards to implement

Unlike most contemporary popular music, this kind of music demands high quality recording and playback and is more so if you take this genre more seriously. The preferred order for storing the music in your master collection when you “rip” from CD or record from analogue media would be:

  1. FLAC or similar lossless codec at best bitrate available
    This may have compatibility problems with most of the portable media players on the market, because they don’t have native support for this codec. Some DLNA-based media-player components, usually those hifi components made by companies who make equipment for discerning listeners may support this codec natively. If you wish to work with this codec, make sure that the media server or “jukebox” program that you use can transcode from this format to LPCM for DLNA applications or MP3 at 320kbps, AAC at 200kbps or WMA at 192kbps for portable media player applications. Most such programs that rip to these codecs can support these transcoding requirements
  2. AAC at 200kbps or WMA at 192kbps
    These offer a tradeoff between good quality sound and storage efficiency and most devices on the market do support either of these codecs natively. It may still be worth it to check if the media server or “jukebox” program can transcode as mentioned above.
  3. MP3 at 320kbps
    This is the codec that is often used for digital media but the only problem with it is that it is not efficient. It is also the preferred codec that is used when you download music via an online store.

The metadata issue

How does a person refer to a particular piece of classical music?

Instrumental and vocal works Opera, Ballet, Oratorios, Musical Theatre
Composer Composer
Work Work
Movement (for multi-movement works such as symphonies, concerti, etc) Act or Part (works performed over multiple acts or parts)
Some works, most notably Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, are primarily a group of multi-movement works that are intended to be thought of as a group, but each work or each movement can be considered as an item. Scene, Aria, Chorus, etc

The works can be further differentiated by the performers who had a part in performing the work, such as a solo performer, orchestra (with a particular conductor), opera company or theatre.

Organising the Metadata

This is made more difficult because most music metadata is organised based on most popular music where the concept of an album is a collection of songs by one or more artists.

You will have to organise the metadata manually whenever you add a recording of a complete work to the music collection. This is more so where you buy a recording with multiple multi-movement works like nearly all concerto and sonata CDs and an increasing number of symphony CDs. Some of these recordings may have a multi-movement work plus a few single-movement works rather than two or more multi-movement works. This may not be of issue when you have recordings which are a selection of single pieces and/or key movements, arias and choruses from larger works.

You could give each work its own “album” name and make sure each movement in the work is given a track number that is consecutive to how the movements are meant to be performed. Another good practice would be to change the movement’s or part’s  “title” field to <<movement number>>-<<movement’s full name within work>>. There are some works that have a highlighted part within one of the movements, such as the 4th movement in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Here, the “Ode To Joy” chorus will typically be its own track and may be numbered “5” in the album track order, even though it is part of the 4th movement. You may still have to have this part being numbered as “5” in the album track order and the title’s movement number being “4a” so as to properly place it as part of its parent movement.

Also, if you are dealing with a suite of multi-movement works like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, you may have to have each work, such as the “Spring” concerto as its own album. Similarly, long-form musical-theatre works like operas and ballets that are performed over multiple acts may need to have each act as its own album.

As well, you will need access to the “Composer” field for modifying and searching so you can integrate the composer as a key domain. This should be kept consistent in respect to the name of the composer. Try to avoid using name variations across different works by the same composer; and especially avoid referring to a composer by surname only. This can be more of an issue with works by Johann Sebastian Bach who was a very prolific composer; as well as the works composed by his sons such as that popular “Musette” piano piece. As for genres, the music should be listed under the “Classical” genre or similar genres.

Searching for the music

You may have to search amongst the “Album” metadata in the “Classical” genre to find works. As well, you should have access to the “Composer” metadata field – Windows Media Connect, Twonkymedia, Asset UPnP and other good servers provide for this. Musical theatre works like opera could have each act as its own work e.g. “La Traviata Act 1”, “La Traviata Act 2”.

You may need to search based on composer then work methodology if you are after a particular work. If you want to run a sequence of works, you will need to add the works to a “now playing” queue in your DLNA media player or controller. A good idea is to use playlists for keeping suites of multi-movement works like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, or particular musical-theatre works together for sequential playback.

What needs to be done for music metadata management to cater for classical music

Data structures and fields in the databases need to exist to encompass the structure of classical music; primarily works, parts of long-form works (acts, etc) and suites of works. There also need to be data views that work commensurately with classical music’s structure i.e. to support “composer, works group, work, movement, performer(s)”. As well, music-management programs, including portable-media-player firmware and music metadata reference sites like Gracenote need to apply the different data structures and views when they are handling classical music. This can be made easier by detecting if a recording is identified as being part of the “classical music” super-genre; as well as providing a view structure for all classical-music recordings based on the “composer, works group, work, movement”; as well as the conventional “album-based” view for classical-music recordings so as to cater for “collection” recordings.

Summary

Once you can get your hands on the music metadata by editing it manually, you can safely integrate your classical music into your online music library while being sure you can locate that favourite work or movement.

Please feel free to leave any comments on how you had gone about integrating your classical music in to your online music library.

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Feature Article – Repurposing that ex-business laptop computer for home use

Originally published at my previous Windows Live Spaces blog in May 2007
First published on this blog in November 2008. Updated 31 July 2009
 
If you are repurposing an ex-business laptop computer for home use, you need to make sure that it is safe as far as the computer’s former life is concerned and able to perform well in the home. Here, you would need to “detach” the computer from its former business life by removing line-of-business applications and data; and business-specific configurations like network, VPN and terminal-emulation setups used in the business. In some situations like ex-kiosk computers where the computer was heavily locked down, you may have to research the Internet to find out how to reset the BIOS settings so you can boot from the optical drive for example.
 
1. Make sure that you have the original media and licence information for the operating system and any other software to be used in the home context.
2. Visit the computer manufacturer’s Website and obtain the complete driver set for the computer’s current configuration. Copy this driver set to a CD-R or USB memory key. You might find it better to work the computer directly with the operating system’s abilities like Windows Zero Configuration rather than use the software supplied by the system manufacturer.
3 Do any necessary repairs to the computer like replacing damaged keyboards. This could be a good time to track down replacement batteries, AC adaptors or AC cords for the computer. If the computer doesn’t have built-in wireless or isn’t able to have wireless networking retrofitted at a later date, track down a wireless-network PCMCIA card or ExpressCard to suit your home network.
4. Format the primary hard disk and install the operating system and other software from the original media. Activate XP / Vista / Windows 7 and Office as applicable and deploy the driver set from the CD-R or USB memory key that you prepared in Step 2.
5. Register the computer with network services that are part of the home network like the network printer. If the printer is hosted by a Windows box, you may be able to set it up using “Point and Print” where you load the printer drivers from the Windows box.
 
As far as software is concerned, you can use a basic “office” package like Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition as well as Screen Paver (the shareware photo screen-saver that I use) and the latest version of AVG AntiVirus Free Edition or Avast AntiVirus Home Edition for your additional software. Most functionality is catered for by the software that is part of the operating system.
 
If you are working with a Windows-based computer, it may be worth downloading Windws Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Photo Gallery from http://download.live.com . These programs provide the essentials for instant mesaging, desktop POP3 or IMAP mail, RSS-feed management and digital-image management.
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Feature Article – Understanding and Managing your HomePlug network

If you want to have your HomePlug network segment working properly for you and your needs, you will need to be able to manage it properly. This article talks about how to connect the HomePlug devices for best results and how to organise the devices in your HomePlug segment for privacy or improved network performance.

Understanding the typical AC supply

A mains “phase” typically describes a single standard-voltage AC circuit from the street transformer through to your premises. In a typical residential power service, where the general-tariff power passes through one electricity meter, all the power outlets are on the one phase. Most US residential installations have two phases due to the low standard voltage but HomePlug has been designed to work around these installations.

The electricity meter for a typical household AC supply is considered a “firewall” for the HomePlug network segment that operates on that supply because of the way it works. This may be a problem for a multi-building home network where there is another building like a bungalow that is metered separately.

Electrical accessories and the HomePlug network

For best performance, you should have the HomePlug devices plugged directly in to the power outlets. But this is not always feasible due to distance from the outlets or the number of outlets available near the device.

An extension cord can be used for a HomePlug setup as long as it is of the right type. For short runs up to 10 metres, you can use the regular domestic extension cord that is typically used for the vacuum cleaner or portable radio. You will need to use “tradesmen-grade” or “caravan” extension cords for longer runs. As well, daisy-chained extension cords may not be beneficial to the HomePlug signal.

As far as powerboards / power strips and “double adaptors” are concerned, make sure that the HomePlug device is connected to one without surge-suppression or line-conditioning technology. On the other hand, you could use one equipped with surge-suppression or line-conditioning technology if it has an outlet that is marked “HomePlug” and you plug the HomePlug device in to that outlet. You can also get around this problem by plugging your HomePlug device in to one of the outlets on a regular powerboard and plug a surge-suppressor powerboard which has your computer equipment in to another of the outlets of the regular powerboard. A recent-issue HomePlug-Ethernet bridge that has a built-in power outlet or one of the surge-suppressor powerboards which have integrated HomePlug-Ethernet bridge functionality can solve the problem very easily.

Managing your HomePlug network

The network is typically managed with software that is supplied with your HomePlug hardware. This is usually in the form of a configuration tool, typically a version of “PowerPacket” for most operating systems. In some cases, you may have to download the software from the device manufacturer’s Website. Infact, the Solwise website has most of the software available for nearly all of the operating systems.

On the other hand, some devices, typically HomePlug wireless access points and routers can be managed by logging in to a particular Internet address, similar to managing an Internet router.

A recent trend that has emerged is for HomePlug AV devices to implement “SimpleConnect” which uses push-button control to enrol devices to a HomePlug network segment.

HomePlug Device Identifier

This value is unique to each device and is known as a Device Password in a HomePlug 1.0 network. This information is typically printed on a label that is attached to the HomePlug device itself, alongside the MAC address for that device. It may also be attached to the device’s packaging.

HomePlug Network Segment Identifier

This identifier, usually set to “HomePlug” but can be set by the user to a different value, is known to the devices that are part of a HomePlug network segment. It is typically known as a “Network Password” for both the HomePlug 1.0 or “Private Network Name” for some HomePlug AV networks and can allow multiple HomePlug network segments to exist on the one mains phase.

Configuring a Network Segment To A Particular Identifier

You will have to obtain the Device Identifiers from each of the HomePlug devices that are to be part of the Network Segment that is having that identifier. Then, make sure that they are plugged in to the AC supply and can be seen by the HomePlug device you are doing the configuring from. This can be checked using your configuration software that has come with that HomePlug device.

Add all the devices to your network by entering their Device Passwords in to the configuration software. Then go to the “Privacy” or similar option and set the Network Password for all devices that are on your network to make the segment

If the devices use HomePlug AV SimpleConnect, you just need to press the button on the device which is a member of the segment you want to enrol your other device in, then press the button on the device that is to be enrolled.

What you can do

“Pushing out” a HomePlug installation

As I have mentioned before in my feature article on multi-building home networks, you may have to “extend” your HomePlug network if you can’t get proper network operation on some of the mains circuits such as in remote buildings.

This involves creating two different HomePlug segments, with each segment having at least one HomePlug-Ethernet bridge on the same mains service. Then the Ethernet connection from a bridge associated with one HomePlug segment is connected to the Ethernet port on the bridge associated with the other HomePlug segment. These can be connected directly or via an Ethernet switch so one can run network devices from the Ethernet link.

The above setup would then have to be deployed halfway between the HomePlug devices that are trying to communicate such as in an outbuilding nearest the main house like a garage.

HomePlug AV and 1.0 in the same premises

HomePlug 1.0 and AV can exist on the same mains service but will work as separate network segments in a manner which doesn’t compromise their bandwidth. The separate network segment issue can be mitigated with a Ethernet bridge device from each technology connected to each other or to the LAN ports of a router or Ethernet switch.

Conclusion

Once you know how to understand and manage the HomePlug powerline network, you can gain a lot more out of this technology and make it work well in your building.

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Network Management Hierarchy Terms

Term Description Example

Network Areas

   
Subnet or Logical Network The network that exists behind a router and has a particular IP addressing scheme. This is independent of the media that the devices connect to the router with. All of the computers and network devices that connect to the Internet through the router – the typical home or small business network.
Network Segment A group of devices that connect through a particular network medium or identified part thereof. An Ethernet LAN, HomePlug network with the same Network Password or WiFi Extended Service Set (WiFi AP(s) with a common ESSID and security parameters; and communicating with each other)

Devices

   
Edge or Gateway A device that is between two or more logical networks The broadband router
Bridge A device that is between two or more network segments but part of the same logical network Ethernet switch, HomePlug-Ethernet bridge, WiFi access point
Device; Node, Endpoint Any computer, games console or other device that benefits from the network A PC or laptop computer, the XBox 360
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Feature Article – Video conferencing in the home network

You might be thinking of using video conferencing as a way of talking with distant relatives or friends. Infact, there was an article on TV Channel 7 News (Melbourne, Australia) on 4 December 2008 regarding the use of this technology to allow families to communicate with elderly relatives who are in nursing homes that are a significant distance from the family.

Is your network ready?

You shoud make sure that you have a broadband service of at least 512kbps ADSL or standard cable specification. As far as your router is concerned, it needs to support UPnP IGD / NAT traversal behaviour. This may be easier with most home-use and SOHO / small-business routers bought from retailers. But you may have to be careful about routers supplied by Internet service providrs, especially if the equipment is not available for general retail sale.

Also check that you are getting good WiFi reception if the computer you intend to use is to be connected to the network via WiFi wireless. This may include making sure that the aerial(s) on the wireless router is upright and, perhaps, considering setting up a wireless network with two or more access points. This has been talked about in my feature article on multple-access-point wireless networks. If the computer is a desktop unit located far from ther router, such as a home theatre computer, and you don’t want to pull Ethernet cable out to it, it may be worth considering a HomePlug powerline network kit. This kit uses the AC wires in the home as a network segment and still provides Ethernet stability in a “plug and play” manner.

What hardware to use

Computer with properly-performing video and audio subsystem and and a decent-quality webcam like a Logitech or Microsoft unit. Most recent laptops have a webcam built in to them for this kind of activity. If you don’t have a microphone attached to your desktop computer, the microphone that is part of a decent-standard webcam can do the job for picking up the voices.

What software to use

There are three different platforms to work with for video conferencing. One is the Skype platform which has existed mainly as an international free-telephony platform. But now it has become more popular as a video-conferencing platform. This one is available for the common computing platforms such as Windows, MacOS X and UNIX / Linux as well as some devices like the Sony PSP and would be the preferred choice if you want to be sure of accessibility.

The other two are the Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger. Both of these are popular instant-message platfrms but have voice and video telephony built in to them. The main problem with them is that they work only with the Windows platform and the MacOS X platform, which may preclude UNIX / Linux users from using them. Windows Live Messenger is at the moment being rolled out to the XBox 360, mainly as a text chat system but could be rolled out for full video chat.

Going about it.

You will have to complete the setup wizard for the conference program and this will typically require you to use your e-mail address as your identifier.

As well, you will need to complete an audio-video check which allows you to make sure that the microphone is going to pick up the sounds and that the speaker is loud enough without causing unnecessary echo or feedback “howl”. This test simply requires you to set the microphone gain to a proper level by you saying a test passage in to the system at your normal voice and checking a level meter on the user interface. It also requires you to set the speaker volum by you hearing an audio test signal and adjusting the volume for personal comfort. At this point, the system sets itself to avoid the echo or feedback “howl”.

There will usually be a “video” test to make sure that the webcam is working properly and can see you. This will typically be a “mirror image” showing up on your screen of what the camera can see, so you can focus the camera and determine how much lighting you may need for proper visibility.

Then you exchange your video-conference ID with your family and friends who are running the same software. Typically, when a user adds a contact to one of these programs, the program sends a message to the contact asking for permission to add them to the list. This is to protect the contact’s privacy and make sure they are dealing with the right people.

Other issues to consider

If you are planning to engage in “group” video conferencing such as when your family is talking to a distant relative, it may be worth using the large-screen TV set for this purpose. Such a TV set should have a VGA connector or HDMI connector and can be connected to the computer via the VGA socket or a DVI or HDMI socket. If you are not using HDMI as the connector or your computer doesn’t pass audio through the HDMI connector, the sound should just be connected to the TV set or home-theatre receiver via a standard audio lead. Most older CRT-based sets can only be connected to a computer via a composite or S-video cable and the video driver set up for work with the composite / S-video output.

As well, you will have to make sure the webcan stays on top of the TV set. This may involve the use of a USB extension lead to connect the camera to the computer and the use of Blu-Tack or double-sided tape to keep the camera from falling off the set. This issue is more real with flat-screen sets which don’t have much space on top of them

If you are concerned about your privacy and security, you may need to keep the webcam disconnected while you are not involved in video conferencing so that rogue software doesn’t “open” the camera up.

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Feature Article – DLNA Network Media Series: Setting up PC-less networked AV

Why set up a PC-less networked AV setup

A PC-less networked AV setup doesn’t need a particular computer to be present and running to provide AV media to DLNA client devices.

The media is provisioned by a box that is designed for providing AV media to client devices 24/7. This avoids situations where the media is not available due to the PC crashing or being infested with malware; both events that can be very common occurrences with most home computers. There is no need to worry about a PC which is being used for playing games or doing other system-intensive activities limiting media availability. Similarly, these setups use less energy than a PC working as a media server.

This setup also suits today’s laptop-based computing environment where laptop computers are more likely to be moved from place to place. It also suits environments like holiday houses where there is no real use in keeping a desktop computer on the premises but there is the desire to have occasional Internet access at such locations.

As well, this kind of setup appeals to computer-shy people who may want to benefit from digitally-hosted media. This is because there is no need to have a noisy ugly computer in the house for this kind of activity to occur.

Another bonus is that when you add more media client devices to the network, a dedicated media server can handle the increased demand more capably. Contrast this with a PC where the odds of failing when serving more devices can increase rapidly.

What kinds of PC-less media server exist?

Dedicated DLNA music server (Philips Streamium WACS-7000, Sony GigaJuke  NAS-S55HDE, etc)

This unit is typically in the form of a hi-fi system or component that is part of such a system. It has a single hard disk that is primarily for storing media, typically music files and have a network interface, either in the Ethernet or 802.11g wireless form.

Such units will have a built-in CD drive and can “rip” audio tracks from CDs loaded in that drive. They will have access to a metadata service like Gracenote so that the tracks are properly indexed by song title, artist (both album and contributing), genre and album title. As well, they could record audio to the hard drive from a device connected to the server’s line-level input or, where applicable, from a built-in radio tuner. This is in a similar manner to recording music to tapes from the radio using that good old cassette deck.

A lot of these systems expose features and functions that only work best with selected client equipment sold by the server’s manufacturer. They may have limitations concerning transferring audio files to and from the unit’s hard disk, which may limit backup or secondary-storage opportunities. Usually they require a computer to run a special utility in order to transfer music files to or from the unit.

Standalone NAS (network-attached storage) box

These devices are simply a dedicated file-storage device that is connected to the home network and handles files according to standard network-based file-handling protocols. They often provide backup file storage and secondary file storage for computers on the network as well as media-server functionality.  Some users may use the hard disks in these units as a “holding bay” for their computer’s hard-disk contents while they are upsizing that computer’s hard disk.

These boxes will typically come either as a single-disk unit which is the size of a book or as a multi-disk unit that is typically the size of a toaster or breadmaker. These units  either uses the hard disks as a huge storage volume or sets aside some of the disks as a “shadow store” for the data should any of the disks fail. This latter technique, which also provides higher data throughput is known as RAID which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks.

They are available as a unit fitted out with the necessary hard disks to the capacity you pay for or as an enclosure where you install hard disks that you buy separately. Earlier versions of these enclosures required the user to mess around with a screwdriver and end up losing screws in the assembly process, but the newer units just require the user to slide in or “clip in” the hard disks.

This class of device includes “headless” small-scale server platforms like Windows Home Server and some Linux distributions which can be expanded by the user to perform different functions. They may include this kind of software being loaded on an otherwise-redundant PC that is being repurposed as a small-form file server.

This device will be the way to go eventually because of its ability to provide a flexible media-sharing solution for most small networks.

"Ripping" NAS units

There are a class of NAS boxes that are just like a regular NAS box, having the same number of hard disks as these devices and having the same capacity and functionality as these boxes. But these units, such as the RipFactory RipServer, have a built-in optical disk drive and software which “rips” CDs loaded in to the unit’s optical drive, in a similar manner to a dedicated DLNA music server. They will use a music metadata service like Gracenote to index the tracks that are ripped from the CDs loaded in the unit’s optical drive. These units would be considered as a “bridge” between the dedicated DLNA music server and a general-purpose NAS box.

USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-compliant USB file server

Another common method is to use a USB network file server device that is connected to a USB external hard disk. The device can typically be part of another network device like a router or just become a standalone box. These units, again, handle files according to the standard network-based file-transfer protocols.

They work best with one self-powered USB hard disk because most of these server devices usually run on a low-output power supply that typically powers the electronics within. Most of these units also don’t have the logic to properly handle a USB hub or multiple USB hard disks. If you are using a small hard disk that doesn’t have its own power supply, you may need to connect it via a self-powered USB hub. Similarly, you may find that using a self-powered USB hub can assure reliable service with any of the USB file servers that can support USB hubs,

These setups are useful for a temporary media-sharing arrangement where you are providing media to one or two devices or as an auxiliary media server for other media that isn’t always used.

Storing your media on these devices

If you use a dedicated NAS unit without a built-in optical drive, you will need to make sure that you have SMB (Windows, MacOS X, Linux) or NFS (Linux) read/write access to the media share on that NAS unit. As well, make sure that there is a desktop shortcut, mapped drive letter or other mount point to that share on your computer(s) that you are preparing the media on.

Prepare your media as you normally would, with it ending up in your computer’s media directories. Then copy the media directories to the NAS media share using the standard practices that you use for copying files and directories. You may need to set up a “sync” routine to automatically copy new media to the media share so you can be sure that the new media is available on the network.

Avoid the temptation to "rip" a CD directly to the network share because there is the increased likelihood of errors and slow performance due to multiple points of failure existing between the CD and the NAS’s hard disk, being the optical drive, the ripping and encoding processes and the network transfer process.

Increasing and evolving the DLNA networked media system

One media Server, work towards a NAS unit

This is more analogous to a business’s file server where the IT department want to make sure that all company data is seen as one collection to back up and manage and is at one location. This may appeal to you if you want to have only one primary storage point for your media.

The only limitation about this is that if you need to “do anything” with the NAS unit like upsize it or replace a failed hard disk, you will have to have the media library out of action.

Two or more Media Servers serving different content

You may want to have the media on two or more media servers rather than one media server. This may appeal to a household which has young adults or adolescent children living in it. In this situation, they may want to keep their media on an NAS that they have responsibility for and can take with them when they move on. This avoids you having your media server being “clogged up” with their media which you will less likely want to touch whether they are with you or when they have left your place.

Similarly, you may have media to do with your personal activity as well as media to do with your business or community-engagement activity. Here, you can run a separate media server which houses your business media and this one can be managed under business standards and be financially underwritten by your business. This includes Web developers who run a NAS box as a “Web-page workbench” and want to view primary pictures for their Web page on a DLNA media client attached to the big-screen TV.

Here, you create the different media servers but you make sure they have different names so that your DLNA client devices can differentiate between the server devices. You may use different types of server such as a USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-capable USB file server for a small project or a business-class NAS unit for your business data.

An increasing number of NAS devices pitched at the domestic market are starting to support the ability to aggregate multiple DLNA media libraries in to one large media library. This allows the user to point their media client device at one reference point for all the media that exists on the one home network.

Media Servers in different geographical locations

There may be the possibility of running another DLNA-based media network in another geographic location like a business premises or another house.

The main issue about this is keeping both locations in sync with the desired content. You may have to use an Internet-based sync utility which is supported by your media server to synchronise content between locations.

On the other hand, you could set up an IP-based NAS-NAS backup set for incremental or differential (only files that are new or have changed) backup, but the backup jobs could still be large if any metadata is changed.

You would have to make sure that both NAS units are accessible from the Internet. This may involve establishment of a “dynamic DNS” setup through the use of “DynDNS” or similar utilities; or having each location have a fixed IP address. Then there is the issue of setting up a port-forwarding rule in your router, which may be easy if your NAS units implements UPnP-based port forwarding and you are using a UPnP-compliant router in each location. On the other hand, you may have to visit the router’s Web page to set up the port-forward rules.

This situation hasn’t been made easy because typically the concept of using multiple NAS boxes for applications like multi-location file storage hasn’t been defined as a key application.

Conclusion

Once you have moved towards the PC-less DLNA-based media network, you will thank yourself that you have headed down that path. You won’t need to keep a noisy computer on all the time just to enjoy your music over the network.

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