Category: SOHO / Small business computer setups

What is the “new computing environment” and how to go about it?

When I talk of laptops, wireless routers and network-capable printers, I make frequent references to a “new computing environment” that these devices can enable.

What is the “New Computing Environment”

Sony VAIO E-Series laptopThe “New Computing Environment” is a home computing environment that is based around portability and flexibility. The seed for this environment has been sown with the widely-publicised Intel Centrino campaign and is becoming stronger in a lot of households.

It consists of most of the computers in the house being laptop or notebook computers.It may also include the use of “all-in-one” desktop computers similar to the newer Apple iMacs or HP TouchSmart desktops. The goal is that these computers are able to be moved easily around the house at a whim.

This environment will also encompass the use of smartphones and tablet computers for secondary computing activities like casual Web browsing, email and use of social networks.

There is a Wi-Fi home network in place that is served by at least a wireless router that is the network’s Internet “edge”. The computers may connect to that router via Ethernet if they are close to it but are typically connected to that router using the Wi-Fi network segment.

What does this lead to

Increased flexibility

The key benefit is to increase flexibility when it comes to computer use. The major benefit is that you can relocate the computer as you need it. An example that was portrayed in an Intel Centrino radio ad that was played in the UK was someone who was writing out an email on a laptop being being interrupted by another household member who had come in to do the vacuuming. Then they are able to move somewhere quieter to do the rest of their work.

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

As well, the “New Computing Environment” also leads to increased “casual computing” setups like viewing sites like YouTube or Facebook while lounging around on the sofa; going through one’s email while relaxing in bed or flicking through online news sites while in the kitchen. I even wrote a short article on this site about the trend of young people visiting Websites while watching TV.

Catering to temporary workspaces

Another very common scenario is a household without a dedicated workspace. This is where the kitchen bench or the dining table becomes a temporary office. Some households may have a collapsible table like a card table or trestle table along with one or more folding chairs, set up in a lounge area or landing for use as a temporary workspace; or may have such furniture on hand to set up a temporary workspace as required. The “New Computing Environment” allows the user to shift the computer along with the rest of their work whenever they need to do something like set the table for a meal.

Even if a household has a dedicated workspace, there will always be the need to create another temporary workspace to suit another person’s work or study needs or to suit a different type of work.

Storage flexibility

Similarly, laptop computers are much easier to store when not in use. For example, they can be put in a drawer when not needed, as I have mentioned in an older article regarding use of a laptop as a kitchen PC. This allows the machine to be well out of harm’s way which can be of concern in a busy household or with some children and pets.

As well, the laptop is also more suited to households who have older “davenport” or “roll-top” desks which are capable of being closed up when not in use. Here, these computers can be used at and stored easily in these desks. It also allows these desks to become the elegant piece of furniture that they are known for.

Suitability with “downsized living”

This computing environment is becoming increasingly relevant with people who live in smaller houses and apartments; especially city apartments.

This class of user includes “empty-nest” parents who are moving to smaller premises because their children have left the family home, but still need to be able to look after their grandchildren when they come around.  Here, their computing equipment doesn’t need to cause much space to be taken up in these smaller living quarters.

The “home-business” laptop

This kind of computing environment also suits the use of a “home-business” computer that is used at home but taken to the workplace while you are working. For some small-business operators, a large laptop like the Dell Inspiron 15R or the HP Probook 4520s may be the only computing device that they need to use for all their computing needs and you just pack this machine in the boot (trunk) of your car before you head to or from your workplace.

Implementation notes

Starting out

You will need to use a laptop computer that is commensurate to your computing needs. But it will have to be equipped with an integrated Wi-Fi wireless network interface of at least 802.11g WPA standard. This covers most laptops made over the past five years. I have reviewed plenty of laptops and notebooks on this site and will be reviewing more of them as they come along from different manufacturers. You can have a look at the list of equipment reviewed here on this page.

Compaq Presario CQ42

Compaq Presario CQ42 entry-level laptop

If you are intending to buy a new laptop computer, I would suggest that you look at the buyer’s guides that I have written – “Buying a Laptop or Notebook Computer”. Here, I have suggested the use of the 15” laptop computers as a sole or main computing device for this environment. If you have very basic needs like emailing and basic Web surfing, a unit equipped with a low-end processor and around 2Gb memory, like the Compaq Presario CQ42 that I have reviewed here, can suit your needs here. It is still worth it to spend as much as you can afford on the hard disk capacity because as you use the computer more regularly, you will end up filling the hard disk more quickly.

On the other hand, you may want to use an “all-in-one” desktop computer like one of the Apple iMac, HP TouchSmart Desktop or Sony VAIO J or L Series computers. These have the computing power, secondary storage and the screen integrated in one slim lightweight housing, with a separate keyboard and mouse. They may be useful as a “common” or “family” computer and can be stored or moved easily as long as you know how to reconnect the keyboard and mouse.

Printers

A lot of people who set up for the “new computing environment” typically use a direct-connected printer and bring the laptop closer to it in order to plug it in when they want to print or scan something.

Canon PIXMA MX-350 network multifunction printer

What you need to do for proper implementation is to use a network-enabled printer. Here, these printers connect directly to the network either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi wireless and accept their print jobs through this connection. Multi-function printers can also expose their other functions like the scanner, fax or memory-card slots to the network.

This avoids the need to connect the laptop to the printer every time you want to print something out. With a network printer, you just select that printer from the list of printers when you specify a print job from your laptop and, moments later. you will find your print job in the printer’s output tray. Here, the job is sent via the network to the printer rather than via a cable that you always connect to the printer.

“Easing the gap” towards flexibility

Some users who are used to a regular laptop computer connected by Ethernet to a single-port broadband modem at a regular workspace may still get in to the habit of connecting the laptop to the wireless router using the “old way”. This is more so if they see their computer’s home location as being on the desktop near the router and while at that location they plug it in to the Ethernet socket on the router.

Some operating systems may react in a strange way if the user plugs in the Ethernet connection while the wireless connection is still active. This may be not of concern with newer operating systems that can automatically deactivate the Wi-Fi wireless network interface if the computer is connected to the network via an Ethernet cable.  Here, the user needs to know how to manually enable and disable the Wi-Fi wireless network interface in the laptop.

Some of the computers will use a separate “Wi-Fi” button to turn the Wi-Fi modem on an off whereas more recent examples will require you to press the “Fn” key and a function key with a transmitter symbol to turn the wireless network on and off. This function may also be known as a “flight mode” and in some cases, will turn the Bluetooth function on and off at the same time.

Then what you might end up doing is to forget using the Ethernet cord and just use the laptop wirelessly as you realise you can use the Internet at home without wires.

Network-attached storage devices

If you are considering expanded or secondary data storage space for the “New Computing Environment”, you will be interested in buying a network-attached storage device. This is a dedicated external hard disk that is accessible from computers connected to your network. It is different to the idea of repurposing an old desktop computer as a shared storage server because the device is designed specifically to be a storage device and will end up being quieter, more efficient and more reliable to run than the old desktop computer.

They are relevant as a backup device; to offload rarely-touched data from your computer and/or to works as a standards-compliant media server for your music, digital pictures and videos. I have touched on this latter application in the DLNA Home Media Network series article: “Setting up for PC-free operation”.

An increasing number of wireless routers are offering NAS functionality when a USB hard disk is plugged in to them. This may be good for starting out or a temporary network-storage solution but a dedicated network-attached storage device can do the job much better for long-term use. As well, most of the routers that offer this function are very under-powered when it comes to handling USB hard disks and you would then have to use a self-powered USB hard disk or connect the “power” USB connection on small USB-powered hard disks to a powered USB hub.

Is wired technology relevant to the New Computing Environment

There are some cases where wired-networking technology is relevant to the New Computing Environment. One main case would be to support network printers or networked AV devices that don’t have integrated Wi-Fi functionality. This would be more so as you consider purchasing an Internet-enabled TV or Blu-ray player for your home and a lot of these devices may just have an Ethernet socket rather than Wi-Fi connectivity.

Another case would be to use a secondary access point to extend wireless-network coverage, such as with buildings that use thick walls made of brick, stone or similar materials; large buildings or outbuildings on a property.

Here, you may think that you have to lay Ethernet wiring through the premises and this may be expensive and of poor value if you aren’t renovating, extending or rewiring your building. In most cases, you could use HomePlug AV technology as your wired “no-new-wires” technology because this uses regular AC wiring as a data carrier.

Conclusion

What I am hoping to do with this is to explain the “New Computing Environment” that is becoming a major trend as far as home and small-business computing is concerned. This is where the computing environment is centred around the use of portable computers that connect to a wireless network.

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Feature Article – Moving your closed-circuit TV surveillance to IP technology

WARNING THESE PREMISES ARE PROTECTED BY VIDEO-SURVEILLANCE

The typical video-surveillance system

You have established a video-surveillance system in your business premises and have had it going well for many years. It would be based on four to nine analogue cameras located through the business premises and all of these cameras are connected to a multiplexer, commonly known as a “quad”. This device, which presents video images from the cameras in a sequence and / or as a matrix of four images on the one screen, is then connected to a VHS time-lapse video recorder that is recording whatever is going on in the premises. You are able to see the output of the cameras through one or two monitors, whether dedicated video monitors or a spare TV that is pressed in to service as a monitor.

If you are lucky enough to do so, you may have used a dedicated digital video recorder instead of the VHS time-lapse video recorder as the system’s video recorder. These units would have a built-in hard disk and may copy images or video segments that are needed for reference to a DVD using an integrated DVD burner. There is also an increased likelihood of these units being able to work with multiple cameras without the need to use a “quad”.

But now you have heard talk from people in the IT or security industry, such as your system’s installer, about the concept of network-based video surveillance and perhaps seen other businesses and government sites being equipped with this technology. What with the ability to have the increased expandability and flexibility that it provides at all points of the equation.

What benefits does the new IP technology provide?

For example, you could have the recording functionality located away from the premises so employees can’t handle the recording media or to permit security firms to offer offsite video monitoring as another service. In some cases, an IP-based video-surveillance system can make it easier for business partner groups such as police officers or your landlord’s security team to easily “patch in” to your cameras as needed and upon you agreeing without upsetting your existing system’s setup.  As well, you may want to benefit from advanced handling of the video feed which can lead to functions like video motion detection, automatic vehicle number-plate (license-plate) recognition or people-counting being part of your system, whether integrated in to the cameras or as part of extra software in other system devices. These systems may also offer the ability to use high-resolution cameras which may appeal to you in certain security scenarios like fraud detection.

The technology is becoming available at a cost that most small business users can afford. One of the reasons is because most of the infrastructure may already exist due to the data network being laid down for Internet access and computer networking. Similarly, you may benefit from your network-attached storage device or business server being able to work as a DVR device simply by you adding cheap or free software to that device. On the other hand, there are some DVR devices that work with network cameras and offer a lot more video-surveillance functionality and integration in the long run, with some of them offering a Web-based system dashboard available over the network. As well, your regular desktop or laptop PCs can work as cost-effective system-control and monitoring terminals through the addition of cheap or free software or the computers’ Web browsers being pointed to the cameras’ Web sites. This may then make you think that your closed-circuit TV system is simply “too old” for today’s requirements. How should you go about moving towards the technology?

The IP network infrastructure

The network infrastructure that is part of your IP-based video surveillance system should be based on Cat5 Ethernet cable, which can be used as your business’s wired data network. This can provide for a reliable system and permit you to move towards “Power Over Ethernet”, which allows a single Cat5 Ethernet cable to carry power to the cameras as well as the data back from the cameras. This is infact a scenario you should look towards deploying, with a multi-port “power midspan” or “powered switch” providing the power-supply needs for the cameras and obtaining its power via a good-quality uninterruptible power supply that has adequate power capacity.

You could use other network media like Wi-Fi or HomePlug powerline for supplementary camera installations such as additional event-specific cameras or test-run cameras that you may use as part of building out your system.

Standards and setup issues

When you choose your equipment, make sure that your equipment works to common standards such as video codecs that are commonly in use or Internet-standard protocols. You may also want to make sure that each camera is accessible by either a known IP address or host name through the logical network at all times so as to make it easy to set up or revise your system.

If you are thinking of remote access, it may be worth using a dynamic-DNS service or fixed IP service; and establish port mapping so you can navigate to the cameras from outside of the network. This is to allow you to use a known IP address or fully-qualified domain name to refer to your system from outside.

The main objective with a proper IP upgrade is that you don’t lose any functionality that your existing system has provided you. Rather, you gain more in the way of functionality, expandability and security from the new setup because of the new features that the IP-based equipment and software will provide.

The upgrade path

Check your DVR for additional network functionality

If your system uses a DVR rather than the VHS time-lapse recorder as its recording device, find out if the DVR offers access to stored footage or live camera streams via industry-standard network setups. It also includes the possibility of the DVR sending images or footage to nominated people by e-mail or MMS in response to an alarm event. As well, the extra functionality could also include the ability to record images or footage from network cameras.

This functionality may be available through hardware and/or software that you may be able to retrofit, whether done by yourself or a competent computer or security technician. The software may be available for a very low price or, in some cases, for free from the manufacturer’s site or a respected third-party developer.

Network video encoders

These devices are used to connect the existing system to your network. They come in one-channel or multi-channel versions. The one-channel version can service one existing camera or the “MONITOR” output of an analogue system’s multiplexer, whereas a multi-channel version can service multiple cameras. The latter solution can come in handy if you want individual access to your legacy system’s camera outputs via your network.

It is also worth noting that some of the high-end network video encoders come in the form of an expandable infrastructure where there are many encoder “blades” that are installed in a rack-mount “master chassis”. This could allow a user to increase the number of channels in the encoder simply by replacing the “blade” which has fewer channels with one that has more channels. These units may appeal more to installations where there are many serviceable analogue cameras.

If any of the cameras in your system use “pan-tilt-zoom” functionality, the network video encoder that you use for these cameras should have a compatible “PTZ” interface so that you don’t lose this functionality. Similarly, if your system uses alarm connectivity for changing how it records the video information, the network video encoder should support this same alarm connectivity.

Recording

The IP-based video-surveillance system has increased recording flexibility compared to the legacy systems. Here, you could have the images captured on a network-attached storage unit that exists within the logical reach of your business network. For example, you could have one of QNAP’s multi-disk “muscle-NAS” units located in your premises AND a D-Link two-disk NAS at home or in another premises under your control set up to record images from the same lot of cameras  You also benefit from the fact that most of these NAS units can be upgraded to higher capacity in the field through the purchase of larger capacity OEM hard disks from independent computer stores.

In some cases, you can set up some of the NAS units like most of the QNAP range to work as network video recorders by installing software applications in these units. This usually allows the cameras and the recordings to be viewed from the NAS’s management Web page.

It may be worth knowing that there are some special NAS units that are optimised for IP-based video-surveillance setups. These will usually have functions like a Web-based dashboard, improved user interface for indexing and, in some cases, video-analysis functionality not available in the cameras. These are worth considering for larger video-surveillance systems.

Alarm integration and POS Exception Monitoring

Your system may be set up so that your video recorder works in real time if, for example, the building’s alarm is triggered or a staff member presses the duress-alarm button during a hold-up. You can make sure you don’t lose this functionality when your system is network-enabled. As well, you may benefit further from this through network cameras sending through pictures to specified e-mail addresses or MMS-enabled phone numbers upon alarm events.

To achieve this, you need to make sure that your cameras that are in the alarm’s scope have alarm-input terminals and that the signalling devices are properly wired to these terminals as specified in the documentation. In some cases, you may need to use a relay or optocoupler as a way of achieving a compatible connection that operates properly. An alarm installer or electronics technician can do this kind of work easily.

If you are a retailer who integrates POS Exception monitoring where certain normal or abnormal transactions cause your closed-circuit TV system to register them as alarm events or overlay transaction data on the video information, you should make sure you can integrate this functionality in your network-enabled system. The network-based system may allow for transaction-searching or exposure of transaction data independent of the video and could work with network-based POS systems.

Scenarios

These scenarios avoid the need to replace any equipment that is in good working order ahead of its time and prefer that the IP-based technology be “bolted on” to a video-surveillance system in a manner to enhance the system without losing any of its functionality.

Simple network enablement

You may simply start out by connecting the monitor output of your existing system to a single-channel network video encoder. This may be of use if your current-term objective is to view the system’s output on your network-connected PC or your mobile phone.

On the other hand, you may use a multi-channel network video encoder to network-enable all the cameras in a small 4-camera system or, for a larger system, a few cameras that you consider important as well as the monitor output. Then you add another multi-channel network video encoder to network-enable more cameras. You then run a video-surveillance manager program on your general-purpose PC so you can easily view the cameras and set up your network-based recording options.

You will still keep your “quad” and VHS time-lapse recorder or DVR going as a “failover recording setup” until that hardware breaks down irreparably.

Additional or replacement cameras

When you “build out” your video-surveillance system with extra cameras or replace any of the existing cameras, the newer cameras that you deploy in this scenario should be network-capable units. As mentioned before, you run a video-surveillance program on your PC to set up the recording and viewing options.  If you have enough room on your existing system’s multiplexer for extra channels or are replacing existing cameras, you have the option to connect these cameras to the multiplexer because they will have video outputs as well as network outputs. This setup will then appeal to those of us who have plenty of mileage left on the older equipment and still want to use that equipment to record the footage; or haven’t yet run Ethernet wiring out to the new cameras.

Moving away from tape or proprietary DVR

Your VHS time-lapse recorder may be just at the end of its service life and you may be thinking of where to go next. Similarly, you may have had enough of that proprietary DVR that cannot be expanded easily and want to look for something better. This could be a time to network-enable your existing video-surveillance system. Here, you could deploy a multi-channel network video encoder and a network-attached storage like a QNAP unit on your network dedicated for the video surveillance system. Then you use video-management software on your PC to direct the cameras to record to the NAS and to make DVDs of footage that you need to provide.

Complete system upgrades

You may be in a position to upgrade your video-surveillance system, such as through new premises, renovations, newer security requirements placed by government, insurance or company needs; or a large number of the components coming to the end of their useful life. Sometimes, the government may financially assist you in improving your system whether through a grant, loan or tax break towards the cost of the equipment as part of a compliance or “safer cities” program.

This upgrade may give you the break to move towards an “all-IP” system with IP-based cameras, one or more recording devices being network-attached storage devices, computers running video management software; and all of them interconnected using the business’s Cat5 Ethernet cabling.

Conclusion

Any business who has the premises protected by a video-surveillance system should be aware of the IP-based video-surveillance setups. As well, they should know when to evolve to the IP-based technology and how to do it without unnecessarily replacing existing equipment.

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Keeping the WiFi public hotspot industry safe

Originally published: 12 March 2009  – Latest update 20 April 2010

There are an increasing number of WiFi wireless hotspots being set up, mainly as a customer-service extra by cafe and bar operators. But there have been a few security issues that are likely to put users, especially business users off benefiting from these hotspots.

This is becoming more real due to netbooks, mobile Internet devices, WiFi-capable smartphones and other easily-portable computing devices becoming more common. The hotspots will become increasingly important as people take these devices with them everywhere they go and manage their personal or business data on them.

The primary risk to hotspot security

The main risk is the “fake hotspot” or “evil twin:. These are computers or smart routers that are set up in a cafe or bar frequented by travellers, business people or others who expect Internet access. They can be set up in competition to an existing hotspot that offers paid-for or limited-access service or on the fringes of an existing hotspot or hotzone. They offer the promise of free Internet access but exist for catching users’ private information and/or sending users to malware-laden fake Websites hosted on the computers.

Standard customer-education practices

The common rhetoric that is given for wireless-hotspot security is for the customer to put most of their effort into protecting their own data without the business owner realising that their hotspot service could be turning in to a liability. This can then lead to the hotspot service gathering dust due to disuse by the customers it was intended to serve.

The typical advice given to users is to check whether the premises is running a wireless hotspot or if there is a hotzone operating in the neighbourhood before switching on the wireless network ability in your laptop computer. Then make sure that you log on to a network identified by a legitimate ESSID when you switch on the wireless network ability.

Other suggestions include use of VPNs for all Web activity, which can become difficult for most personal Web users such as those with limited computer experience. Some people even advise against using public Internet facilities like Internet cafes and wireless hotspots for any computing activity that is confidential on a personal or business level.

But everyone involved in providing the free or paid-for hotspot service will need to put effort into assuring a secure yet accessible hotspot which provides a high service quality for all users. This encompasses the equipment vendors, wireless Internet service providers and the premises owners.

Signage and operating practices

When Intel promoted the Centrino chipset for laptop computers, they promoted wireless hotspot areas that were trusted by having a sticker with the Centrino butterfly logo at eye level on the door and the premises being scattered with table tent cards with that same logo. Similarly hotspot service providers and wireless Internet service providers used similar signage to promote their hotspots.

But most business operators, especially small independently-run cafes and bars, commonly deploy “hotspot-in-a-box” solutions where they connect a special wireless router that they have bought to their Internet service and do their own promotion of the service. This may simply be in the form of a home-printed sign on the door or window or a home-printed display sign near the cash register advising of WiFi hotspot service.

An improvement on this could be in the form of the ESSID matching the business’s name and listed on the signage, which should have the business’s official logo. Similarly, the network could be set up with WPA-PSK security at least with the passphrase given to the customers by the business’s staff members when they order hotspot service. Most “hotspot in a box” setups that list the customer’s username and password on a paper docket also list the ESSID and WPA-PSK passphrase on these dockets. As well, I would modify the login page to convey the business’s look with the business’s logo and colours. A complimentary-use hotspot could be secured with a WPA-PSK passphrase and the customer having to ask the staff member about the passphrase. This could allow the facility to know who is using the hotspot and the organisation who runs that hotspot can have better control over it.

It may be worth the industry investigating the feasibility of using WPA-Enterprise security which is associated with different usernames and passwords for access to the wireless network. Most portable computers and handheld devices in current use can support WPA-Enterprise networks. This can be implemented with the typical “paper-docket” model used by most “hotspot-in-a-box” setups if the authentication system used in these units works as a RADIUS server and the built-in wireless access point supports WPA-Enterprise with the unit’s built-in RADIUS server. The same setup could work well with a membership-based hotspot service like a public library with the RADIUS server linked to the membership database. But it may not work easily with hotspot setups that work on a “self-service” model such as paid-service hotspots that require the user to key in their credit-card number through a Webpage or free-service hotspots that use a “click-wrap” arrangement for honouring their usage terms and conditions.

The organisation who runs the hotspot should also be aware of other public-access wireless networks operating in their vicinity, such as an outdoor hotzone or municipal wireless network that covers their neighbourhood; and regularly monitor the quality of service provided by their hotspot. Also, they need to pay attention to any customer issues regarding the hotspot’s operation such as “dead zones” or unexpected disconnections.

People who own private-access wireless networks should also keep these networks secure through setting up WPA-secured wireless networks. They should also check the quality of their network’s service and keep an eye on sudden changes in their network’s behaviour.

When wireless-network operators keep regular tabs on the network’s quality of service, they can be in a better position to identify rogue “evil-twin” hotspots

Improved standards for authenticating wireless networks

There needs to be some technical improvement on various WiFi standards to permit authentication of WiFi networks in a manner similar to how SSL-secured Web sites are authenticated. This could be based around a “digital certificate” which has information about the hotspot, especially:

  • the ESSID of the network ,
  • the BSSID (wireless network MAC) of each of the access points,
  • the LAN IP address and MAC number of the Internet gateway
  • the venue name and address and
  • the business’s official name and address.

The certificate, which would be signed by public-key / private-key method could be part of the “beacon” which announces the network. It would work with the software which manages the wireless network client so it can identify a wireless network as being secure or trusted if the signature is intact and the network client is attached to the network from the listed BSSIDs and is linking to the gateway LAN IP.

The user experience would be very similar to most Internet-based banking or shopping Websites where there is a “padlock” symbol to denote that the user is using an SSL-secured Website with an intact certificate. It will also be like Internet Explorer 7 and 8 where the address bar turns green for a “High-Assurance” certificate which requires higher standards. In this case, the user interface could use colour-coding and / or a distinctive icon for indicating a verified public network.

The provision of cost-effective wireless-network management software

There are some programs that can turn a laptop computer in to a wireless-network survey tool, but most of them don’t show much useful information, are hard to operate for anyone other than a network technician; or are too costly. They miss the needs of people who run home or small-business wireless networks or wireless hotspots.

What needs to exist is low-cost wireless-network management software that can work with the common Microsoft or Apple platforms on computers that have common wireless . The software should be able to use commonly-available wireless network adaptors such as the Intel Centrino platform to perform site surveys on the WiFi bands and display the activity on these bands in an easy-to-view but comprehensive manner. The software should be easy to use for most people so they can spot interference to their wireless network easily and can “tune” their wireless network for best performance.

An application that is matching this need is MetaGeek’s inSSIDer, a free wireless-network site survey tool for the Windows platform which I have reviewed in this blog. It has the ability to list all the networks receivable by signal strength, MAC address, SSID or channel; or plot a graph of the networks by signal strength over time; or plot a graph of all the access points by signal strength over channel. This may help with managing your hotspot by identifying rogue access points and “evil-twin” hotspots.

Similarly the popular smartphone and PDA platforms like Applie iPhone, Android, Symbian S60 / UIQ, Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Mobile could have low-cost wireless-network management software written for them so they can make a handheld PDA or mobile phone work as a site-survey tool for assessing quality of service.

Once this kind of software is available for small business and home users, it empowers them to assure proper coverage of their network and check for any “evil twin” or other rogue hotspots being set up to catch customers.

Summary

There needs to be more effort put in to setting up secure public-access wireless networks so that people can benefit from portable computing anywhere without forfeiting the confidentiality of their personal or corporate data.

It also will encourage people to gain the maximum value out of their WiFi-enabled portable information devices whether for their business life or their personal life.

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Another threat to Apple being the king of “all things cool”

 Acer developing ‘ace in the hole’ ultrathin, putting MacBook Air on notice — Engadget

My comments on this topic

When Windows 7 was launched, I wrote an article on this blog about an intent by Windows-based PC manufacturers, especially laptop manufacturers to upstage the Apple Macintosh platform in the beauty, reliability and performance stakes. This was also ran in conjunction with HP launching their Envy laptop series which reminded me of the Apple Macbook Pro laptops. Later on, I had blogged about an ASUS laptop that would appeal to people who love the design masterpieces that are the Bang & Olufsen TVs and music systems.

In the earlier article, there had been some mention about Acer designing a multi-touch all-in-one PC. They had also come good on an ultra-thin Windows 7 laptop that is intended to upstage the Apple Macbook Air series of laptops. This Intel Core-powered unit will be designed with a thickness goal of 1.9cm (0.7 inches) and, of course, will be relatively light. Acer have an intention to release the machine sometime “this year” but I would place its availability sometime before the end of the next financial year.

This certainly shows that since Apple Snow Leopard and Microsoft Windows 7 were launched, the competition for computer hardware that pleases most everyday users has become more intense.

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Windows 7 – How it will benefit the small business and work-home laptop users

There have been some significant advances in Windows 7 that benefit the small business and the mobile laptop users. This includes people who use their computers for both their work use and home / community use.

Location Aware Printing for “work-home” laptops

If you run Windows 7 Professional or above on your laptop, this operating system has another feature to support the “work-home” laptop. It is in the form of “Location Aware Printing” where the default printer is determined based on which network the computer is connected to. The network can be determined by factors like the domain Windows is associated with, the SSID of a wireless network or the MAC of the Internet Gateway or DHCP Server that it gets its IP address from.

The printer can be a network printer that exists on the network like the HP OfficeJet at your workplace or your Epson WiFi-enabled all-in-one at home, a locally-connected printer like your Canon portable USB printer or a software-based virtual printer like your fax software’s “print-to-fax” function or “print-to-PDF” software.

At the moment, there isn’t ready support for handling location-aware printing in locations where there are many printers in the same facility, such as the typical workplace or educational institution with its many rooms.

Inherent support for mobile broadband services

Windows 7 has inherent support for 3G wireless broadband services thus eliminating the need to run operator-provided software to use the 3G modem. It also caters for laptops that have integrated 3G modems, which is a feature becoming more common with units that are supplied through mobile-phone outlets. In some cases, you may not need to install any software provided by the 3G provider to use wireless broadband Internet service.

This is similar to when Microsoft implemented Dial Up Networking in Windows 95 and users didn’t have to run any other software to get online with their dial-up Internet service.

Wi-Fi Wireless Flexibility for the business partner and hotspot surfer

Windows 7 has improved the Wi-Fi wireless infrastructure thus allowing a Wi-Fi equipped computer with an appropriate hardware driver for its wireless card to do more tricks. It can become a wireless-wireless LAN bridge which can allow for such things as running Wi-Fi devices that can’t go beyond regular WPA2-PSK authentication and don’t have an easy-to-use Web browser with networks that implement WPA2-Enterprise authentication at workplaces or Web-based authentication at hotspots. A good use for this could be for a business partner to take pictures with his Wi-Fi digital camera and upload them to his laptop or a site worker who wants to play his Roberts Stream 202 Internet radio at a wireless hotspot just by using his laptop (which will alert him to new work) as a gateway. It can also allow for “bonding” of multiple Wi-Fi signals for greater throughput, which can come in handy with multi-access-point networks.

Improved business network functionality

The Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate computer has improved business network functionality, which can come in handy with corporate or business-partner networks. One feature that I like is “network-specific” security that accounts for VPN and DirectAccess network setups. Here, you can set up a “domain-driven” business network profile for the VPN tunnel while you have a “private-network” security rule that applies to your home network or a “public-network” security rule that applies to public networks like wireless hotspots. This still allows business-driven network tools like system management tools or desktop-based MIS “dashboards” to operate “through the tunnel” with your computer being secure enough for the network you are in.

Speaking of DirectAccess, this is an improved IPv6-IPSec VPN replacement provided with Windows 7 Ultimate that does away with the need for extra weight associated with a lot of VPN software. The software sets up a separate IPv6 path to the DirectAccess server that your employer or business partner provides and makes the access to business resources more transparent. This function will require the use of a Windows Server 2008 R2 box installed at the workplace by your employer or IT contractor and your computer to run Windows 7 Ultimate.

Conclusion

This series of Windows 7 articles shows how your Windows-based computer and network can be improved when you deploy Windows 7.

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Jetstar unveils thin client, BYO laptop vision | Australian IT

Jetstar unveils thin client, BYO laptop vision | Australian IT

CITE:

The Jetstar engineering group recently embarked on a BYO model with much success, he said, buying 60 Toshibas at $825 each rather than the corporate standard (Lenovo) Thinkpads.
"We gave each staff member a 16GB memory card with a complete PC virtual image — all the engineering manuals, software and drivers," Mr Tame told an Accenture media roundtable in Sydney.

END CITE

Why does this impress me?

Most companies, especially larger companies, as well as schools prefer to run a fleet of laptops that are the company’s property and work on an operating environment specific to the company’s needs and line of business. These rapidly-depreciating assets are often supported by the company’s IT staff or an outside IT-support company contracted by that company. Often there will be rules and constraints on how these units are operated. Once the machines have finished their tenure in the business, there is the problem of disposing of them. They may be sold off through auctions, given to charity groups or some businesses may permit employees to buy the machines from the company at a greatly-reduced price.

There are some problems with that setup. Typically these laptops are often taken between work and home or are taken around the country or world by business travellers and also end up being used to store personal and family data. They also end up being used as games machines either with online games or games bought through a computer store or video-game store. This is usually to while away the time during a long flight or placate restless children. As well, the hardware setup typically encountered in most homes is different from that which exists in the workplace. The network will have a consumer-grade router at the network-Internet edge and the printers that exist at home will be the typical consumer-grade all-in-one inkjet printers that may be connected directly or via the home network.

Women can take advantage of laptops that reflect their personality and style rather than the “same old same old” machine. This is more so because of manufacturers who are releasing models that are designed with aesthetics in mind, such as a choice of different colours or finishes. Similarly, some power users can look towards buying computers that are the equivalent of an American “muscle car”, with all the power and aggressive looks.

By providing the employee with a memory card with the virtual image, Jetstar had kept the operating environment separate from the laptop’s own storage, thus avoiding mixing company data with personal data. Similarly, the company workspace can be transferred between computers if a computer dies or is infested with malware; or the employee upgrades the computer.

This is certainly a break from the standard computer culture that has engulfed business computer life. As well, this concept could be looked at for computer setups at primary and secondary schools, especially where students may end up with “hand-me-down” equipment.

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DLNA and UPnP AV in the business

Originally posted: 5 January 2009, Updated 6 July 2009

Very often, DLNA and UPnP AV are typically marketed as being for use in the home due to the reduced amount of configuration needed for devices that comply to these standards. But devices based on these standards can appeal to business use, especially to small “mum and dad” shops, community / religious organisations and other similar businesses who don’t have regular access to “big business” IT resources.

The functionality is typically available as low-cost or free software or, in some cases like Windows XP and Vista, available as part of the operating system. There are some “business-grade” network-attached storage boxes that have the functionality for business continuity as well as the ability to work as DLNA-compliant media servers. A good example of this are the Netgear ReadyNAS units and the QNAP units, including the TS-459U Series 4-disk rackmount “pizza-box” NAS server which would be pitched at the office server room.

The main issue that one will have with this kind of setup will be that the network that you intend to connect the equipment on must be on the same subnet or logical network, served by the same DHCP server. This will be fine for most small-business, and SOHO networks, including the “private” segment of networks that provide Internet access to the public such as wireless hotspots and Internet cafes.

If you are concerned about security of business data or the integrity of business systems, you could run a separate server for the DLNA-presented media data rather than use the main server for this purpose. Then you can lock down the main server as tightly as it should be for the data.

Visual Merchandising

DLNA-based setups can come in to their own when it comes to all sorts of visual merchandising applications. This is more so for small businesses who cannot afford to buy business-grade “digital signage” or find the “digital signage” difficult to manage due to complex setup requirements.

You can have images or videos of products that are always kept fresh and up-to-date and can intermingle these images and videos with up-to-date “electronic signage” that you create with programs like Microsoft PowerPoint. The best example of this being used would be the real-estate agent who uses the setup to show pictures of the houses he has currently for sale or a beauty salon showing examples of the most fashionable hairstyles they have done lately.

A DLNA-compliant network electronic picture frame like the Kodak EX1011 or the D-Link DSM-210 can work wonders here as can any DLNA-compliant network media receiver (or games console) hooked up to a large flat-screen TV or monitor. Similarly, a DLNA-compliant flat-screen TV like one of Sony’s recent LCD TVs can fulfil the same needs here, especially now that the cost of these sets in in affordable territory and the sets are available from most electrical retailers.

The media server can be part of the file server’s functions or can be hosted on a separate box such as a network-attached storage unit. You just need to add the media to this server by using a standard network file-transfer protocol like SMB or FTP.

You will need to make sure that the media server presents the files either by keywords (tags) and / or folders of the file system so that you can file the pictures how you want to file them. Windows Media Player and TwonkyMedia do support working by keywords and folders.

If you use a presentation program like Microsoft PowerPoint to create “electronic signage”, you just need to export all of the slides in your presentation as JPEG files in to a folder available to the media server. This is done in PowerPoint by opening the presentation and selecting “File” – “Save As” and selecting “JPEG” as the file type. You then have the option of exporting the current slide as a JPEG or exporting all the slides in the presentation as JPEG files in a folder named after the title of the presentation.

Background Music

If you are sick and tired of the radio or those business-to-business music services, you can use a computer as a music server, with the music playing out through a DLNA-compliant network media player such as one of those Internet radios.

As I have mentioned in my previous DLNA feature articles, it is very easy to do whether you decide to use a computer or a network-attached storage box as a media server. Most of the network-enabled music players support shuffle-play which can be very useful for this application and a lot of them have a line-out connection so you can connect them to a public-address amplifier or music-on-hold interface.

Education – The media library

A DLNA-based media system can work well when it comes to education. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is to show a video to a class or whether a student is viewing a video they saw in class “once more” in the library.

A capable DLNA media server with a properly-indexed media collection can work wonders here, with the users selecting the AV material through the DLNA media player’s user interface. Most such players can connect to existing AV equipment or the DLNA functionality can be part of the equipment’s functionality.

Similarly, if the media server provides it, you could allow Web-based access via any computer connected to the facility’s network. This can allow wireless-linked computers to be used to “pull up” the learning resources.

Other business-based DLNA applications

DLNA is eventually heading in the direction of a common IP-hosted data system for transferring media between portable and fixed devices. A typical application may include uploading images and movies from a digital camera or camcorder to a “base” computer for editing and viewing. Similarly, there may be the application of downloading AV material from a computer to a smartphone so it can be viewed on that phone’s display.

Conclusion

What needs to happen is that DLNA needs to be viewed as not just being for the home but being for business and educational life as well.

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Teleworking Best Practices

Pandemic Preparedness: Teleworking Best Practices | Wi-Fi Planet

My comments on this topic

In the article referenced from this post, the last few paragraphs talked about being prepared for teleworking whatever the “raison du jour” was. This was because whenever there was a national security incident, a natural disaster or a plague, the concept of telecommuting would be raised through business discussions. But whenever these risks subside, telecommuting falls off the agenda.

I personally consider the concept of teleworking as something to be factored in to everyday office life no matter the national or global situation. One application I think of very heavily would be for workers who end up doing double-duty as family carers, such as for ill or convalescing children; or elderly parents.

As well, it may appeal to people who are approaching the end of their tenure at the business to be able to increase being used to staying home rather than at the office. This is more so with family-run businesses where there is an increased risk of “living in the office” even as their active tenure comes to a close.

Similarly, it could also allow larger office-based employers to reach talent pools that exist in rural communities for some of their office jobs. The employers can be able to then work from home for most of their working month, but come in to the office for meetings and similar activities.

The way to technically prepare for teleworking would be to ensure that there is a good-quality secure Internet link to the office, such as a VPN, and consider the use of a VoIP or other “virtual extension” setup for the telephone. A webcam can be handy if you intend to do some video-conferencing with the office.

As far as the printer is concerned, make sure that you can print out any workplace documents with it. This may involve making sure that any “remote-desktop” programs can work with your local printer.

Small businesses can look towards using LogMeIn or GoToMyPC as a quick-setup remote-desktop tool, especially if you use “home” versions of Windows operating systems in the office or you don’t have much computing knowledge. If you use a “pro” or “business” version of Windows and have a fair bit of computing knowledge, it may be worth knowing how to use the Remote Desktop functionality.

As far as your VoIP or “virtual extension” setup is concerned, it may be worth making sure that your system can be capable of allowing the same extension number to be easily switched between two or more physical terminals, like a softphone program, VoIP handset or classic fixed or mobile telephone. This can permit the phone system to work with your work-home life.

Once you have a setup that allows you to do your work at home, you can be ready to work from home at a moment’s notice.

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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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Comments about the Intel vPro Anti-Theft Technology

Intel Demonstration video of vPro Anti-Theft technology in action

Linked through from the IntelChannel YouTube channel

My comments in relation to small businesses and home setups

The Intel vPro anti-theft technology as presented in the above YouTube video is promoted for use by larger companies or schools who have a fleet of notebook computers and people in their regular hire who manage their IT needs. This is typically represented by the segment where the user is working at a software or Web-based “console” to administer the “poison pill”.

This kind of facility may not be available to households or small organisations who manage their own IT needs unless the remote management functionality is available as a cost-effective service. Such a service could be offered by security firms who sell their services to residential and small-business customers and these firms could integrate the “secure notebook” as part of their business-security packages or as a stand-alone service.

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