Increase in poor service quality with Web-based e-mail services

 

LiveSide article about Hotmail service outage (March 12, 2009)

BBC Technology article about recent GMail blackout (February 24, 2009)

An increasing number of people are using free Web-based e-mail services like Windows Live Hotmail, Google GMail and Yahoo Mail because of their free, anywhere access model. What is happening now is that these popular services are groaning under the weight of their huge userbase and traffic demands.

This is manifested through slow response time during sessions and, lately, the services enduring significant amounts of downtime. I have even observed this with a friend’s GMail service which was off-air for a significant amount of time and this friend worrying about e-mail they or their correspondents were meant to receive. The situation ends up with users losing faith in the services or wondering what is happening with their incoming and outgoing e-mail, especially if the service is their primary e-mail address.

Most of these services typically run huge server farms on a high-availability arrangement, but they may need to identify ways of identifying potential bottlenecks and spreading the load. This could involve localisation of the user experience or simply extra machines or server farms providing a failover role.

Some of the recent Web-mail failures have been targeted not at the e-mail storage or handling but at the user-experience servers. A few people in the IT industry reckon that some of these servers are being subjected to DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks by computer hackers.

The situation that is happening with GMail and Hotmail needs to be observed by Web-based Internet services like the Bebo, Facebook and MySpace social networks; and the photo-sharing and video networks like Picasa and YouTube. This is in order to keep the Web 2.0 services alive and resilient.

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The Mobile Internet Devices becoming the trend for this year

O2’s Joggler, formerly OpenFrame, launches in UK this April

Over the past few months, a new device category has started to emerge in the form of the Mobile Internet Device. It would have the functionality of one of today’s smartphones except for cellular voice and data communications.

The device would link to a home or other network using 802.11g or 802.11n WPA2 wireless or use a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone as its modem when it wants to benefit from the Internet. They will work as a media player, a games machine or an Internet-based information device. Some of these devices may benefit from extra software being downloaded on to them through a Web portal set up by their manufacturer or supplier. The primary user interface on all of these devices is a touch screen, but they may have extra keys for access to regular functions. They would mainly use a standard or micro SD card and / or built-in flash memory as their user storage and have their software loaded on other flash memory.

Interestingly, Clarion, one of the most respected car-audio brands, had developed the ClarionMIND which is a combination of a portable navigation device and a mobile Internet device. This gadget provides in-car and on-foot satellite navigation as well as Internet information access and media playback. If it is installed in a matching dock, the unit works like a high-end portable navigation device, passes its audio through the car stereo system and matches its display to “day” or “night” mode according to how you operate the car’s headlight switch.

The iPod Touch was one such device that predicted this device-category trend. It had the ability to play or show media held within it and was able to benefit from a wireless home network by being able to browse the web or add on software through the iTunes App Store.

But could they make the smartphone or connected electronic picture frame / portable navigation device / portable media player redundant? Not really. I would see them as a companion device for all mobile phones and a device which can perform functions complementary to these other devices.

For example, a mobile Internet device could become a DLNA Digital Media Controller / UPnP AV Control point for the DLNA Home Media Network. Similarly, they could perform other control functions that are becoming part of networked home automation. As well, they could be seen as an alternative to handheld games consoles by being able to download games from the Web portal. Other applications would include Web activities where very little text entry needs to be done such as monitoring information pages.

It would be certainly interesting to see how the new Mobile Internet Devices fit in to the personal computing ecosystem as they start to appear on the market.

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Personal and amateur photos on Web sites – need for improved security

Facebook scam: Ferrari man’s true identity revealed – BizTech – Technology

The recent Facebook scam with the image of a man standing beside a Ferrari had involved images lifted from a holiday album that was published on Picasa although intended to be private.

One of the main thrusts in this scam involved the photographer’s pictures being used without knowledge or permission of the album’s owner and a possible privacy and reputation threat for both the album’s owner and the Ferrari’s owner (if the Ferrari had front number plates).

One thing that needs to be looked at regarding photos published on Web sites like social networking and photo sharing sites is a secure way of publishing these pictures. Some would say that the most secure way is not to use these services at all, but to send pictures using removeable media (optical disk or USB memory key) via at least “snail mail”, preferably certified mail or courier service.  But many people want to still use these services due to the ability to quickly share large numbers of pictures with people over long distances.

Issues that can be looked at could include a watermarking system for personal images so that users can detect improper use of their images; and improved security practices for online services that handle personal and amateur pictures. The watermark system could use a machine-readable watermark and the option of a visible watermark and could be provided by an ISP, enterprise, Web-hosting facility or a photo-sharing / social-network service. The machine-readable watermark should be able to be detected in thumbnails and low-resolution images; synthesised images such as “photoshopped” images and collages; as wel as high-resolution images. This can work in hand with users, ISPs and hosting services using agents that can scour for improper use and let the users know.

Other practices could include a limit on how the picture is seen by untrusted users, such as “low-resolution only” viewing or inability to download, copy (Ctrl-C / Command-C), print or zoom into the actual picture. As well, the systems that host these sites could be checked regularly for hack attempts.

What needs to happen is for action to be taken concerning misuse of amateur and personal images that have been put to the Web, This could be achieved through codes of practice and / or technology implementations.

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Third-party popup blockers and Internet Explorer 7 / 8

There is a very common mistake that I have seen being made concerning the implementation of popup-blocking software. It typically involves one running a third-party popup blocker like one that is part of an add-on toolbar like Google Toolbar in one of the recent crop of browsers like Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 that has integrated popup-control functionality.

The problem can lead to popups that are to be part of your Web experience, such as a transaction wizard, being blocked or, at worst, the browser program hanging or crashing frequently. This is due to competition between the different programs to manage the same site or pop-up screen.

To avoid this, make sure that you are running one popup blocker program only, whether the third-party program or the one that is integrated in your browser. Personally, I would prefer to use the one that is integrated in the browser because of it being tightly linked with the browser’s code, thus avoiding use of unnecessary system resources.

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Mobile Industry Unites to Drive Universal Charging Solution for Mobile Phones ~ GSM World

 

Mobile Industry Unites to Drive Universal Charging Solution for Mobile Phones ~ GSM World

My comments on this standard

This will hopefully eliminate the clutter of mobile phone chargers that exist in most households and the worry concerning lost mobile phone chargers leading to mobile-phone downtime.

The standard can also allow a self-powered USB hub to be re-purposed as a “charging bar”, which would be a boon to the food, beverage and hospitality industry as well as householders. I had heard mention during ABC 774 Melbourne’s coverage of the Victorian bushfire crisis of a pub which was being used as a relief centre having its tables covered with phone chargers. This setup, like most homes and offices, would have one or more powerboards with three or four chargers plugged in to each powerboard. The different chargers would only be able to fit particular phones. A self-powered USB hub working as a charging bar would be able to service 4-7 phones from one power outlet. That would be enough to cover all the phones used by people sitting or standing around an average dining or bar table used in most cafes, bars and similar places. Larger tables like picnic benches, banquet tables or standard tables pushed together can be catered for with a few 4-7 port hubs powered from one standard powerboard.

This also leads to a smaller physical footprint for charging multiple phones and less need for powerboards for this purpose.

Another problem this will also solve is the common problem caused by two or more “wall-warts” plugged in to a double power outlet or powerboard. Here, you have the “wall-warts” not being able to be close together without one of them falling out or making poor contact with the AC supply, thus leading to erratic operation or damage to the charger, mobile phone or AC supply.

Once this interface standard is implemented on mobile phones, this can encourage other personal-electronics manufacturers to use the same connection for powering or charging devices like VoIP phones, MP3 players or digital cameras.

Another improvement would be to simply design innovative power supply concepts without having to factor in different voltages or plug types in their design. Examples of this could include pocket solar panels for personal-electronics devices or powerboards that have built-in USB hubs for low-voltage power supply to gadgets.

Yet another benefit would be that the same socket on the one device can perform two different functions – power supply and data transfer. This is a bonus not just for end-users but for people designing these devices, because devices like mobile phones have fewer holes to be catered for in their design. In fact, an MP3 player or mobile phone could just have a standard “headset” jack for analogue audio sent to and from headsets and a micro-USB socket for external power and data transfer.

The only company whom I think will keep away from the standard or postpone its implementation would be Apple. This is similar to how they treated UPnP and DLNA standards – if it wasn’t created by them, they are not in a hurry to implement it.

Look forward to fewer chargers and adaptors filling our drawers or cluttering our powerboards!

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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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South East Australia bushfires – Important Links

I have set up a list of important and useful links for blog readers who are affected or know of relatives and friends who are affected by the bushfire activity in the South East of Australia, especially Victoria.

This is not a complete listing of all of the Websites that are of benefit but most of these sites will have further links to other government and organization Web sites that are of benefit.

ABC Local Radio Melbourne (774 AM / MW)

Main Web Site: http://www.abc.net.au/melbourne/radio/ 

Live Audio Streams – available around the world

Windows Media Player: http://abc.net.au/melbourne/onair/774stream.asx

RealAudio: http://abc.net.au/melbourne/onair/774stream.ram

vTuner, Reciva and similar Internet-radio directories, including the station directories integrated in to Internet radios, will have this station listed as ABC 774 Melbourne or similar terms.

Useful Web Information

Assistance Web pages:

http://blogs.abc.net.au/victoria/2009/02/offer-help—or.html 

http://blogs.abc.net.au/victoria/2009/02/bushfire-help.html

Country Fire Authority (Victoria)

Main Web Site:http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/

Incident Summary (Status of Fires):

Web Page: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/incidents/incident_summary.htm

RSS Feed: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/incidents/incident_summary_rss.xml

Alerts And Updates:

Web Page: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/incidents/incident_updates.htm

RSS Feed: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/incidents/incident_updates_rss.xml

Community Meetings

Web Page: http://cfaonline.cfa.vic.gov.au/mycfa/Show?pageId=publicMeetings

Red Cross

Web Page: http://www.redcross.org.au

Online Donation to all Red Cross appealss: https://www.redcross.org.au/Donations/onlineDonations.asp (Secure Web site)

Salvation Army

Web Page: http://www.salvos.org.au

Online Donation to Bushfire Appeal: https://salvos.org.au/donate/secure-online-donations/?appeal=drvicfires (Secure Web Site)

Councils

Find your local council: http://www.dvc.vic.gov.au/web20/dvclgv.nsf/headingpagesdisplay/find+your+local+council

Telstra

Telephone Assistance Package Information: http://www.telstra.com.au/abouttelstra/media/announcements_article.cfm?ObjectID=44405 

Phone: 132203

Animal Needs

Triple R Equine Network (Agistment for Horses, Ponies, Donkeys): http://triplerequinewelfare.org/_mgxroot/page_resources_crisis_network.html

Animal Aid: http://www.animalaid.com.au

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HomePlug in the commercial or institutional environment

Often HomePlug powerline networks are, by the name of the technology, pitched at residential networks, typically single-dwelling homes. But can a HomePlug powerline network, whether a v1.0 Turbo or an AV network exist in a block of flats, a shop or a small office?

There are many applications for the use of a HomePlug in the commercial or institutional environment. One would be to set up a network printer or other network-enabled device in a manner that allows the location to be changed at a moment’s notice. This would be of importance for equipment likely to be on the shop floor for example.

Another application would be to set up a multiple-access-point wireless network to extend the coverage of the wireless hotspot in your café or bar. One of the HomePlug wireless access points can easily do this job especially on a temporary setup or setups where you need to remove the access point at night as a security measure.

You may also want to use HomePlug for establishing a temporary network as part of an event that you host at a town hall, school assembly hall or other community facility, thus avoiding extra cables or unreliable wireless networks. Then there is the ability to try out computer-equipment locations for a certain amount of time before you have the electricians pull the Ethernet cabling to the final location.

An example of this kind of setup

At the moment, Devolo, a German company who manufactures HomePlug network devices, have “taken the bull by the horns” in its home market. They have run a German-language Web portal, about using HomePlug as a solution for establishing computer networks in schools. On this page, there are examples of three schools who have established HomePlug network segments that are known to be in full service.

AC power issues

The main issue is that AC power supplies which supply most of these locations aren’t similar to the typical residential AC power supply. These supplies typically involve a “multi-phase” wiring plan that is typically set up for larger motors or other large loads. This shouldn’t be really of concern for setups covering a flat, small shop or office because most of the power wiring is similar to that of a regular house. In the case of shops and other premises that have special equipment like large commercial refrigeration setups, the special equipment is typically wired to its own group of phases while the ordinary power outlets are wired to a single phase, in a manner similar to a domestic setup.

Similarly the large motors like those that typically drive commercial refrigeration / air-conditioning or lifts and escalators can yield interference as they are used. Similarly, arc welding and similar work equipment can increase the amount of interference in the power line. Another issue to remember is that there is very little chance of a HomePlug segment working if you plug any of the HomePlug devices in to one of those three-phase – single-phase powerboards used primarily to run large clusters of standard lighting or cooking equipment from a three-phase outlet. This is usually due to the use of transformers and different phases in these installations.

Testing a HomePlug network segment

When you set up a HomePlug powerline network segment in any of these premises that you haven’t dealt with before or where significant work has been done, you may have to do a test run at the locations you intend to set up your installation at before you run the installation full-time.

You could run the “PowerPacket” utility that comes with most HomePlug-Ethernet bridges to observe the link quality of your HomePlug segment and the existence of the other HomePlug devices that you have plugged in at the locations you want to use. The latter observation can be useful if some of the ordinary power outlets in the premises are wired to different phases. You can also observe changes in link quality when any of the heavy motors are in operation such as whenever someone is using the lift or the refrigeration compressor that serves the commercial refrigeration installation comes on.

Another test would be to do a simple network-based file-copy between computers connected to the HomePlug devices and time that copy process for actual throughput measurement.  At this time, it may be worth looking for changes in network behaviour when any of the heavy motors are in operation as in the situations described above.

But before you do these tests, make sure that the HomePlug equipment you intend to deploy in the commercial environment works properly at your home or at a location where you know from experience this kind of equipment has worked. Also, make sure that you can return the HomePlug equipment to whoever you bought it from if it doesn’t work or be able to buy the equipment “on approval”.

Other setup issues

Another good practice with deploying HomePlug in these locations is to set up an installation-unique Network Password for the installation. This can be easily done with HomePlug AV devices that have “Simple Connect” push-button setup because the HomePlug AV devices work out a unique code for that installation. On the other hand, you would have to use the setup software like PowerPacket to align all the devices (which have the Device Passwords physically on them) to the same Network Password. This allows your HomePlug network segment to work in a secure fashion.

Once you have used HomePlug in these kind of setups, you can be able to know what it can and cannot do in a particular location and defeat the common limitation of HomePlug being just for the home.

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Adding Optical Drives to Non-Computer Devices Using USB – What Can Be Done?

The typical network-attached storage, electronic picture frame or printer is now equipped with a USB host port, typically for connecting USB flash drives and other similar devices. Even a lot of boomboxes and clock radios which have a dock for an iPod have a USB host port so they can play MP3 files held on a USB flash drive. But what about connecting a USB-attached CD or DVD drive.

This could allow, for example, a typical network-attached storage to work like the RipFactory RipServer and “rip” audio CDs to the hard disk so they can be shared to DLNA-compliant media clients. Similarly, those CDs that we “burn” photos on to for sending to other people or viewing on our JPEG-compatible DVD player can be viewed on an electronic picture frame or select pictures can be printed from these discs using an “all-in-one” printer or the pictures that are on these CDs can be copied on to a network-attached storage so they are available on the home network. Approved DVD-playback software could be installed in an electronic picture frame so that one can turn it in to a personal DVD player by adding an optional DVD-ROM drive. Similarly, an MP3 player that doesn’t have a built-in optical drive could become a CD player once a CD-ROM drive is connected to it. The same holds true for such players that have a built-in optical drive but the optical drive has failed, thus extending the useful lifespan of these devices.

The main problems about this is the ability for these devices to support optical drives as part of the USB Mass-Storage device-class specification. Then there is the issue of providing enough power at the USB socket to support a “single-cord” USB optical drive of the kind sold as an accessory for portable computers like laptops or netbooks. This is because the USB cord in these drives is required to supply power as well as data. The power-supply problem can become more intense with devices such as electronic picture frames that are built to a limited size budget and have to work from internal batteries or an external power supply.

If this is implemented, the idea of an “add-on” optical disk drive for the likes of network-attached storage units, electronic picture frames and “all-in-one” printers that the user can buy at a later date can extend the value of these devices through their working life.

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