Sunday, 29 April 2012

Extending the range

I last looked at extending wireless networks in “Wireless working” in October 2006 and “Extending a small network” in January 2007. So it’s about time I had a look at what’s currently available. Here at iTech-Ed Ltd, we got our hands on the Netgear Universal Wifi Range Extender – WN3000RP.

We’ve been using wifi to connect various laptops to the printer and to the router for a few years now and it has worked successfully. We also have high-speed broadband and everything is working well. But nowadays we also have smartphones and tablets that want to be on the wifi, and we could have a whole range of games boxes and other devices that would be naturally located at the limit of where our wifi reaches – or perhaps even just beyond. The answer to that problem is a device like Netgear’s range extender.

It looks like a big plug that would go into any socket, but it also has two small antennae that stick up on either side. Having said that, when it’s plugged into the socket, it can be quite unobtrusive – depending on where the socket is placed. There’s a picture of the device here.

Setting up the device is fairly straightforward. We found a socket on the wall that was close to the fringe of the current router’s wireless coverage and we plugged it in and turned on the power using the button on the side of the device. The instructions say that we could have set up the device using WPS (Wifi Protected Set-up), but we didn’t have that facility. We used the wireless connection manager facility on a laptop to ‘see’ the NETGEAR_EXT wireless network. This is the SSID (Service Set Identifier) the plug was sending out. The next stage was to launch Firefox (in our case, but any browser would do) and try to connect to a Web page. This automatically re-directed the browser to This is the set-up page for the device. We simply ran through the required set-up and saved our answers. The effect was to reboot the device. The next stage was to go back to the wireless connection manager and look for wireless networks. From where we were located, we could just see the original network from the router, and we could see the new one from the Range Extender. This second one now had the same name as our original router’s with “_EXT” on the end of it. We made sure that the laptop would connect to this new wireless device automatically and treated it as a ‘home’ (ie safe) network.

There are lights on the front of the Extender that indicate when it’s powered on; when there’s a connection between it and the router; and when there’s a connection to a PC. It also comes with an Ethernet port, if you need it.

It really didn’t take very long and the instructions were very clear about what to do. Our first test was to move the laptop we’d set everything up on into distant corners of the building. It could still see the new network (whereas before, it couldn’t it couldn’t see the old one). We then tried a smartphones, which easily found the new network. And then tried an iPad. It, again, could now get signal in the furthest corners of two different rooms. But having signal is one thing, having a decent speed is something else again. We used our standard network test – which is to connect to the BBC iPlayer and see whether we can watch a TV programme without it needing to buffer. We found a recent edition of Horizon and tucked ourselves away into a corner. The good news is that the reception was great. We watched about five minutes worth and there was no buffering – and we assumed that if we watched longer it would be the same. Now, there are all sorts of factors that can affect speed, and I’m not saying that HD TV would work as well or streaming a blu-ray DVD. But for our kind of usage. It passed the test with flying colours.

I liked the speed and ease of the installation. There was no CD required and I didn’t have to connect to the device with an Ethernet cable. I simply used the wireless connection manager. If anyone wanted to use this at home to send a signal to distant rooms, I have no doubt that most people would be able to follow the instructions with ease. But there are plenty of smaller offices that have thick walls, or long distances between the router and their furthest reaches that could benefit from such a device.

If you’re looking for a range extender, then the Netgear Universal Wifi Range Extender WN3000RP is a good place to start.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Cloud wars

There was a time when mainframers simply claimed that they’d been using the cloud computing paradigm all along. Then IBM came up with SmartCloud, its vision for cloud computing, offering SmartCloud services and SmartCloud solutions. Last week saw the announcement of the PureSystems private cloud packages. But for non-mainframe users or non-IBM technology users, the clouds are getting darker!

Now, I’ve been using a Pogoplug as cloud resource for a couple of years now. Next to my router, I have a small Pogoplug box. And attached to that box are a number of big memory sticks with files that I want available wherever I am. I can upload and download the files to any computer and I have the app on my phone and tablet – it’s all very convenient.

But for people who don’t have a Pogoplug, there’s been Microsoft’s Skydrive offering online storage space to (originally) people with an MSN account. It’s handy to keep a copy of your files in the cloud and then access them when you go somewhere else. It also allows file sharing. But you may get irritated by the need to download Silverlight.

And that’s the area where Dropbox is such a success. It allows users to share folders with other people and those folders can contain very large documents. Dropbox, in many ways ,became the de facto standard – everyone had heard of Dropbox. And now, BitTorrent lhas aunched Share, which is its equivalent – and is perhaps aimed at younger people who might be more familiar with using BitTorrent offerings.

The problem with Dropbox and the other similar providers is that any self-respecting IT department is going to have to stop its staff using them. Now sharing a photo of my new grandson is one thing, sharing a business-sensitive policy document on the cloud is something else. Who knows what organizations at some time in the future may have access to those cloud-based files? Internal IT security can no more allow staff to use cloud solutions for sharing files than it can allow staff to carry around unencrypted memory sticks.

There are some sites where you can upload your files anonymously, although you get a slow connection. You can open a free account, which gets you a slightly faster connection, or there’s the paid for service with the fastest connection. Once a file is uploaded, you get a URL that you can share, and then people can download your file. Examples include FileDropper (up to 5GB), FileFactory (upload up to 50 2GB files), FileServe (up to 500GB with an account), and HotFile (you pay when your files are downloaded).

Some organizations have limits on the size of files that can be sent as attachments or received as attachments. That’s why some of these other Web cloud hosts have sprung up. People like: Bigupload (up to 50MB), (1GB of storage, but the maximum file size is 25MB), Crocko (up to 1GB), DriveHQ (1GB ), Humyo (10GB), Kontainer file storage (50MB), MediaFire (up to 100MB, MegaSWF (Flash SWF files up to 10MB), RapidShare (up to 200MB), ShareBase (up to 200MB), Sigmirror (5GB of free storage), TzFiles (2GB), and (250MB file size maximum).

And there are many other hosting sites that I haven’t mentioned. And many that charge varying amounts for storage.

Up to now, Google, has offered Google Docs as a cloud solution. You could create your Word files and, assuming you had the Google Docs plug-in, store a copy in the cloud. Or you could just create documents using Google Docs and share them.

But now, it appears that Google is going to launch Google Drive – 5GB of free storage available to all users. Users will get a Google Drive icon on their desktop and use it as a virtual drive. And 5GB is quite a lot of storage – although arch-rival Amazon’s Cloud Drive offers exactly the same free.

Bitcasa, which is still in beta, is offering free storage while it’s in beta and paid for unlimited storage afterwards.

With the growth in cloud storage, more IT departments will have to get involved in making sure that there is some way that business-related data can be kept secure in the cloud. And with Google joining the growing cloud space race, end users are going expect cloud storage to be available to them.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Storage and expertise – the PureSystems box

On Wednesday 11 April, IBM introduced to the world the PureSystems family of data centre infrastructure products. The idea behind them is that they will simplify the management, automation, and running of enterprise applications on a range of virtualization technologies.

This new line of integrated systems has the ability to automatically handle everyday tasks such as configuration and updates, which reduced the amount of time needed to get applications up and running and also reduces the management overhead. Therefore, IT staff are freed up to get on with other work. Users gain the expertise of 125 independent software vendors (such as VMware, SugarCRM, Infor, and Juniper Networks) who developed what IBM calls “patterns of expertise” that automate many common IT and industry tasks such as deployment, configuration, and upgrading of applications onto the appliances. “For example, a customer relationship management program that used to take three days to deploy can now be deployed in under one hour”, claims IBM. In addition, companies can scale their operations very quickly, allowing them to go from a small number of computer systems in one site to service on the cloud, with systems that can be accessed around the world.

IBM proudly described its PureSystems family as one of the most significant announcements of the last 20 years, and said it is the result of $2bn research and development spend over many years.

The announcement might be viewed as a way for IBM to match competitors Oracle, HP, and Cisco Systems, who have all been promoting converged infrastructure – integrating server, storage, networking, and other technologies into a single managed architecture. As a sweetener, IBM says it will buy back servers, ie those sourced from HP and Oracle, from clients who migrate to PureSystems.

As mentioned above, each PureSystems package combines servers, storage, networking and virtualization technologies into a single appliance, with additional services from IBM. The PureSystems initially come in two versions – PureFlex System (which is a basic infrastructure platform for self-service private clouds), and PureApplication System (which includes IBM’s WebSphere middleware and DB2 database and can be used for Web and database applications). The systems support the Hyper-V, KVM, Power-V, and ESX hypervisors from Microsoft, Red Hat, IBM and VMware, respectively, and are based on either Intel or IBM Power processors. Storage is provided by IBM’s Storwize V7000 appliances, and networking can be a choice of either Brocade, Cisco, or Juniper kit.

IBM has included a cloud self-service and provisioning interface in the PureSystems, based on the same technology used in IBM’s public SmartCloud services, giving customers a ready-to-go cloud computing system in a box, they said.

Customers are able to define the PureFlex configuration, while the PureApplication System is available in four configurations ranging from 96 CPU cores and 1.5TB of memory, up to 608 cores and 9.7TB of memory.

IT departments will be pleased to know that IBM is offering a single support hotline for the entire system, whether an issue is with the hardware or software, while there is also just a single procurement process for the entire system.

“You can order just one box with one pin number, and it has on it all you need to get an out-of-box experience straight away with the software, the middleware, the hardware, storage, the network fabric”, claimed Graham Spittle, chief technology officer for IBM in Europe.

There is also just a single management console, according to IBM, although they can also integrate with IBM’s Tivoli platform for customers who’ve standardized on that for management.

Pricing for the PureSystem family starts at about $100,000.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Cloud is the answer!

So if cloud is the answer, what exactly is the question? That’s what a new study (which will be published in April) by Forrester Consulting on behalf of BMC has tried to find out. Now, obviously, I’ve been mixing with the wrong kind of people, but I thought the days when someone in IT said they worked in IT rather than naming the company that paid their salary had gone. I can remember when smart programmers could move from one well-paid job to the next and never worry about the name over the door as they went to work. They just knew about IT and their services were very much in demand. I thought those days were well behind us. I thought the CIO and CFO and everyone else on the board worked together to move an organization forward. But apparently that’s not the case.

It seems that there’s still very much an ‘us and them’ culture, where you’re either part of IT or not. There are plenty of companies out there struggling to get their IT aligned with business needs and opportunities. Suddenly I feel like I’m back in the early 1990s. But that’s kind of what this survey has found.

The report suggests that cloud computing is exacerbating the divide between the business and IT, suggesting: “CIOs are concerned that business leaders see cloud computing as a way to circumvent IT”. We’ve talked about cloud and Bring Your Own Devices in previous blogs, but it seems that some (many?) members of staff view IT’s need for security as a need for control and one that they’re fighting against rather than working with.

The truth is there are many sites using Microsoft products with only a few ITers who are very stretched in order to satisfy the requirements of a workforce that ranges in ability from the fairly IT-literate to barely able to use a mouse (the type of people who demand a keyboard for their iPad!). For those IT staff, saying ‘no’ to an idea can often be the easiest option in order to save time to do everything else that is required of them in a day.

So that’s what leads to results highlighted in this survey of “enterprise infrastructure executives and architects”, which “reveals increasing tension between business and IT stakeholders”. Rather than the cloud being an opportunity for IT to expand and take advantage of this new paradigm, the report spells out that “high expectations for speedy, low-cost implementation of new software systems in the cloud are putting unique pressures on IT departments within the enterprise”.

The bald facts are that nearly three quarters of high-level executives see the public cloud as a way of getting around IT, despite most acknowledging that it doesn’t provide adequate security controls – according to the report. As we all know only too well, iincreasing pressure is being placed on IT departments to reduce costs and complexity, yet at the same time implement fast, low-cost software systems onto the cloud.

81 percent of the 327 respondents see a cloud strategy as a high priority. Seemingly, 58 percent of respondnets are running mission-critical workloads on the public cloud, without a security policy – 36 percent claimed they had a security policy (and six percent seemingly didn’t answer that question!).

Quite sensibly, most respondents thought their IT departments should be responsible for ensuring public clouds met their company’s requirements for performance, security, and availability. Just over a third (37 percent) looked to hybrid clouds as the future. Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) were realistic enough to believe  that it would be difficult to provide the same level of management across both public and private cloud services.

I guess, in many ways, IT liked the dark ages when computing was very much a black-box technology. End users asked for something and, in the fullness of time, they got it. Nowadays, there are plenty of people who can read the IT news on Google or wherever and see what can be done – and they’re wondering why their company isn’t doing it. For mainframe sites, the problem might be the skills shortage caused by too few staff who really understand the technology. For sites running other platforms, it’s so often the paucity of staff they have running their operations. It’s not that those guys aren’t keen to embrace the technology, they just haven’t got the time. But the CIO needs to look out because organizations could outsource their IT to the cloud and there would be no need for in-house expertise – no need for an IT department as such, just a few application champions spread around the departments. Now, I’m not suggesting IT professionals will be without jobs – those cloud providers are going to need staff. But life could very well be different. And we don’t want the future of IT to be driven by non-ITers, do we?