Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Openretch

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Can anyone tell me how BT’s line providing division, Openretch Openreach survive?

The company I work for provides network services to varying people and organisations, and this means dealing with telecoms providers, and that almost certainly means the loose collective of fuckwits we know and love.

So far this week, I’ve had:

1) In response to a circuit order in a building that is partially let out (and where the BT duct enters via the let out area, and is a retail shop) “can we come tomorrow”.

2) In response to an order made 3 months ago, in a central Birmingham hotel, with the clear stipulation “you must make an advance appointment, the circuit is required by 17/4/14″, an “engineer” arrives today, has to wait a few minutes and is told “no, sorry, the room is in use, come back tomorrow”, and says “no”.

Said engineer was told “sorry, you have to. This is required by 1pm tomorrow, and was ordered 3 months ago. It cost a metric shitload of cash, and you haven’t called in advance, like we told you to, and you do this *every time* we request this. The room is available afer 5:30, or anytime tomorrow”

*shaking of head*

This barely describes the quantity of fucks the engineer didn’t give. “Resourcing”, he said. “not gonna happen”. “we’re only supposed to wait 15 minutes, and I’ve been 20″. The guy was, to be fair, a master of fuck not giving.

and not a single fuck was given.

Behold!

He departed. I called my colleague, among whom’s many talents are shouting at BT (and personally, I think it would be worth his salary just for that). He did so. Our circuit should be active tomorrow AM. We have a reference and everything. I will not hold my breath.

Honestly, if they weren’t still a virtual monopoly, they’d be fucked. I’m very thankful to the abilities of my colleagues, and still wondering what shape BT would be in had they not inherited a state-owned monopoly, but thanking my lucky stars I don’t have do deal with Cable and Hopeless Wireless any more, because they had sufficent sense to disappear.

Compare the Meraki

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

(The title thanks to my colleagues who misread the SSID (Meraki-test1)I sent them by email)

I’ve been playing with wireless networks a good bit at work: I’ve finally got PEAP going to do 802.1x authentication- the practical result being WPA-2 Enterprise wireless networking with the Cisco 1600i access points. As I’ve commented before, Cisco gear is great, but it can be a game to get going when you come across something new, and this was the case here: there were guides for doing this with wireless LAN contoller systems, but not for autonomous APs, and the interface was just different enough to confuse. Getting the right amount of debug info was tricky too.

Enter Meraki. Like earlier with Aironet, they’re now a division of Cisco, which makes me wonder if we’ll see a merging of product…

Meraki
‘s product is a [*cough*] cloud-based solution. It pains me to say that. Cloud is today’s IT bullshit phrase that is just a new way of saying things. “In the cloud” means “on a server or servers somewhere on the Internet”: the cloud everything bollocks wears thin after a while, but here’s a clever application.

You unpack the AP, power it up, and connect it to any Internet connection. The AP establishes a connection to “the cloud” [cough]bollocks[/cough], and establishes a tunnel. You log into a web page, enter the serial number, place a marker on a Google map, and then manage the device from the web:

The clever dashboard

The clever dashboard

From there you can implement multiple SSIDs, Captive portals, the aforementioned 802.1x, you can monitor devices and applications, time access, and create mesh networks that will track clients (handy for marketing tossers) and all manner of stuff, with an embarrasingly few mouse clicks compared to the pain of a conventional Cisco AP. It’s quick too.

Sounds too good to be true?

Maybe. There is a downside. While the dashboard is impressive, it costs. The APs themselves are a similar price to an enterprise-level conventional AP (a good 300-400 quid or so list), but on top of that, you need a licence for the dashboard (£150 for 1 device for one year list, reducing for quantity), and without the licence, your AP is an expensive ornament.

There’s applications that are a perfect fit: if you have remote sites with no IT staff, the Meraki devices can be shipped with no config, then set up remotely. Potentially big savings there. The tools on the dash are very clever too, but you’re tying yourself to the cloud dash for a few years, effectively leasing the kit.

Next on the list? Aerohive, who seem to do the clever online managment but still allow local config, so no tie-in.

Everything Everywhere?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Following on from my whinge against Vodafone, I’ve done some limited, semi-controlled testing.

I’ve had the following:

* My own contract Vodafone 3G SIM.
* A PAYG Three SIM.
* A PAYG GiffGaff SIM
* A borrowed contract EE SIM.

and my own Samsung Galaxy S2, a more basic Nokia 302, and a borrowed Galaxy S3 to test with.

This, I think, covers all the underlying networks: Vodafone, Three, O2, and what was T-Mobile/Orange respectively. As I only had 3G-capable handsets (I had thought the S3 might be 4G-ready: it isn’t.), EE was effectively being backed off to Orange or T-Mobile 3G.

I tested 4 locations: My house (1), a pub in Walsall Wood High St (2), my Mom’s house in WS4 (3), and work, south of Birmingham (4).

At location 1, Vodafone works. Data is a little slow, but calls usually work, but can break up. Here, all other networks perform orders of magnitude better for data, and slightly better for calls.

At location 2, Vodafone is, to all intents and purposes, unusable. All other networks perform well.

At location 3, all perform quite well, but EE and Three are noticeably better.

At location 4, Three doesn’t work *at all*. Not much to choose between GiffGaff (O2) on data, but voice calls noticeably better for GG, while EE’s data was nothing short of remarkable, rivalling wi-fi.

In summary, based on my testing:

Vodafone on average performed poorly, but it *can* perform well: on a trip into the darkest Black Country the other day, it consistently worked well.

Three works well, *when* it works.

O2 can work well, and seems ahead of Vodafone in my chosen areas.

EE stood out ahead everywhere (heh!), with very quick data at all locations.

So, that sorts out the underlying networks. Now what about the full spectrum including a couple of MVNOs, if we try to go SIM-only? It’s quite hard to try to compare: the tariffs and prices don’t match up (deliberately, at a guess)- but I’ll try to pick on what *I* would choose.

Well, I’m dumping Vodafone, but I want at least 512MB of data: almost any amount of calls and texts will cover me, so £13/month for 12 months or £15 for 1 month should do it.

Orange want £16 or £18 for the same thing, but bundle many more minutes.

Virgin (an MVNO on EE’s network) are only £10, but critically don’t allow *any* tethering.

EE will stick you £21- but bundle unlimited calls and texts. If you’re a heavy user, it’s a good deal.

O2 want £16/month- or £21 for a 1 month contract.

T-mobile seems good, at only £8 or £10 (with relatively few calls/texts), but again, no tethering.

GiffGaff has no contract, but instead has “goody bags”. The SIM is effectively PAYG, and you add the bags for inclusive minutes/texts/data- and £10 gives 1GB, 500 mins, and unlimited texts.

There’s others- Lebara, for instance, and the supermarkets: Tesco (spit) are an MVNO for O2, Sainsburys and Lebara are the same for Vodafone.

So then. Conclusions?

If money was no object, and I used my phone more, it would have to be EE: the performance is great, and no silly restrictions. As it is, I think I’ll give GiffGaff a punt, as it’s cheap, it works where I need it, and there’s no contract, but a goodybag auto-renew will stop all that tedious PAYG top-up idiocy. If it proves to not work out, I can switch again easily. It *would* have been Virgin, as they give good prices, a discount, and effectively the EE network for a 3G device, but no tethering is dumb.

The thing I found really surprising is that comparing all this is hard- and there doesn’t seem to be an online tool *really* compare in depth. I can’t help but think this is deliberate.

Something Somewhere

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Time for a whinge: another mobile data whinge, but I’m going to pick on someone here.

Vodafone.

I’ve been a customer of theirs for many, many years now, after a falling out with Orange over a several hundred pound bill and threats of baliffs, and before having a smartphone, I was fairly happy with them.

There was always the noticeable failure of any coverage in the local pubs, and the odd wobble near work but otherwise things worked.

Things were different with a smartphone: the total lack of any data throughput near home unless on wifi or using a sure signal really began to annoy, and it only just about working seemingly anywhere I go (Pelsall and Rushall regularly, and also when on holiday) really annoyed. Vodafone then pushed me over the edge (hah!) with a tweet promoting their 4G rollout in Birmingham (which is one of only two places I’ve seen genuinely good 3G performance):

Screenshot from 2013-09-17 19:50:44

They replied:

Screenshot from 2013-09-17 19:52:59

I’ve been there, done that (Voda’s techies were very nice, and explained that yes, coverage was poor there….). At this point, some Lichfield followers chipped in:

Screenshot from 2013-09-17 19:57:37

Which makes a bit of a lie out of Vodafone’s statement, at least locally.

My whinge here is the same as before: The networks will push the latest & greatest, and we’re all told about the massive benefits of mobile data, but the substance doesn’t meet the facts, and big, rich companies aren’t investing. On holiday recently, we struggled to get any service for a good proportion of the time, and data was useless.

So then. I’ve had enough. Vodafone will be dumped at end-of-contract. I already have a Three PAYG SIM, and will try GiffGaff (who are a MVNO for O2, like Virgin are for EE/Orange/T-Mobile) and any others I see fit. First trial of Three sees very impressive coverage here, but it may not be so good elsewhere.

For the comments: Who is the least shit mobile operator? For a while, at least, I’m prepared to go SIM-only, and maybe buy a handset if needed.

Abuse of Abuse

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The metaphorical manure hit the air-movement device this week, and now we have the self-appointed Twitter police oiling up the censorship stick.

Unsurprisingly, as this is the Internet, and some people are nasty, bigoted, small-minded little pricks, Caroline Criado-Perez, who’d led a campaign to put Jane Austen on the £10 note, got some very unwelcome (and completely unacceptable, lets not forget that) attention.

She got rape threats. Just think about that for a moment, and think about the sort of dreadful person that does that. It’s the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory in full effect, or, if you prefer Online disinhibition effect. Some are under the impression the Internet means you can say what you like, free from reprisals: it does not.

This is not a new thing: Usenet, which to this day remains fairly anonymous (with posts only being traceable by IP address, and therefore only with the cooperation of an ISP or NNTP server admin) has been “enriched” by this for many, many years now. It remains a throwback to the old days, with all that entails. Anyway, back to the point.

Something Must Be Done, the world cried.

Then, magically, it was.

was detained in the Manchester area on suspicion of harassment offences.

Sounds like a great idea. Someone makes threats, they get a visit from the Old Bill. Seems like a good way to deal with a criminal act, huh?

Not good enough. We must #takebacktwitter.

The calls are in for a Report Abuse button. These are pretty common on web forums, and newspaper sites, like, say, The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Ok. Let’s look at problem 1, handily suggested by @Greg_Callus:

Screenshot from 2013-07-31 20:47:25

Greg’s on the money with that: the moderation load of even a smallish, well-behaved web forum can represent a lot of work.

Just think about that for a moment. Twitter is a free service, so I doubt it can afford hordes of moderation staff. So perhaps we could automate it?

Then think that you might post something someone disagrees with. Lets say that you express a political view: nothing illegal, but something that sparks controversy:

Someone Is Wrong

and a few people who hold an opposing view get all the people they follow to hit the abuse button. Suddenly, you’ve been silenced. This is why user-trained spam filters fail too: users categorise mail they don’t like as spam, when it isn’t.

One final thought: just like the porn debate, we’re blaming a transport medium:

Screenshot from 2013-07-31 20:46:14

Screenshot from 2013-07-31 21:21:10

When the problem lies with people. Bitter, small-minded people. These people need challenging, but the challenge needs to be intelligent and reasoned, not a knee-jerk reaction that would cripple the social media network. Hey, if only we had laws against threatening behaviour, then we could do something.

[edit]
Found this rather fine post
by Lilian Edwards, Professor of E-Governance at Strathclyde University.

“Clean Wi-Fi”

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

They’re at it again then.

The politicians, despite being met with indifference over the wholesale filtering of domestic Internet connections, our right honourable overlords now wish to promote “good, clean, wi-fi” in public spaces.

Whatever the fuck that means. No porn, maybe? The conspiracy theory types will say this is just the thin end of the wedge for censorship. We could have all sorts of content considered ‘unclean’.

I’ve already discussed that providing wi-fi for public access can be hard, and this is a further obstacle. It’s unclear what the term “wi-fi provider” defines- it could be anything from the biggies like BT Openzone down to my local friendly garage or pub who have chucked a Netgear domestic router in for customers to use.

I’ve already said how hard it is to do filtering properly, and you don’t have to take my word for it.

It’s a bit easier to do on a larger scale, with some enterprise-grade hardware and a subscription, but this costs thousands of pounds a year, and still isn’t 100% accurate.

The domestic routers a lot of small potential wi-fi providers use are the same sort of stuff we all use at home. Here’s my router’s filtering setup page:

router setup page

A typical domestic router’s filtering setup: dependent on manual entries. Click to embiggen.

It’s reliant on maintaining a list of dodgy sites and entering them. Other routers can block based on DNS hostnames, but this, once again, relies on manually keyed blacklists. This is not going to encourage the provision of free wif-fi if people have to stump up time and money, or face legal problems if they don’t.

Here’s a wild idea: if you’re a parent, talk to your kids about the content available on the Internet (the chances being, if they’re teenagers, they can probably teach you a thing or two). Don’t devolve parenting to tech, and if you really have to, do it on the device, where you have control.

Urban Jungle

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

This is a bit painful: I’d usually steer a million miles from linking the Daily Fail, bu there’s local content.

If you drive along the Rugeley bypass (the A51/A513 multiplex), as I did last Sunday from the Stafford/Milford direction, you can’t really miss two things: Rugeley Power Station, and the huge Amazon “fulfilment centre” (i.e. a big shed).

This article I’m reluctantly linking is written in fairly typical Fail style:

Between a sooty power station and a brown canal on the edge of a small Midlands town, there is a long blue building that looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.

*[retch]* Where do they get these journos from?

but still has a bit of interest, and makes an interesting read just to hear about some of the organisation. The way the staff are employed leaves something to be desired though: it being the all-too-common scene these days of temporary contracts and hire-and-fire.

This is letting light in on the magic a bit of course: to me it still is magic that I can sit at home (or at work, or, well, within reason anywhere), and order stuff, and a few days later the magic pixies deliver it to me. Of course, the pixies are HGVs or Transits, ships, containers, railways and all the other infrastructure we barely think about (like this huge warehouse in Rugeley), and all the people, too- people on minimum wage, on short term contracts, and at risk of losing their job for going off sick, if the story is to be believed.

There’s a couple of further, better written articles I’ve found on this, but they’re US-based: The Price of Amazon’s Free Shipping, and I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.

This is all a good indicator of the way things are these days of course. Lots of hidden layers we don’t see, outsourcing, but (on a more positive note) some great use of tech. Tech that’s useful, rather than flashy. I’m still loving the idea that, in effect, stock gets dumped anywhere that it will fit, rather than a designated place, and just gets scanned as being there.

Amazon, like any big, successful business, has some practices you’d rather they didn’t have, but by god, the system works…

A Victory for Common Sense?

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

I’d like to think so, but as I’ve discussed on Twatter, I think not.

The proposals to filter Internet access at the ISP network level have failed, apparently because the public at large weren’t interested enough (PDF, 499kB).

Instead, they want ISPs to offer and encourage filtering software, like that offered by everyone’s favourite pikey ISP TalkTalk (whose filtering software was notoriously ineffective when PC Pro magazine tested it).

There’s something funny going on here. I’d love to think that someone has taken notice of the reasons why the idea was ill-conceived and just plain wouldn’t work, but I doubt that’s the case.

Maybe a few MPs have decided they’d rather not have to opt-in in order to find online filth? Dunno, but you can bet it’s not because of common sense, judging by previous performance.

Drowning in Superfast 4G Hype

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Less than 24 hours have elapsed since yesterday’s rant about the 4G hype and already there’s some bullshit piece in tonight’s Express and Star showing the cutting-edge, well researched, informative and technically accurate that publication has an unenviable reputation for, saying that the lack of 4G will cost the UK economy £120 million, according to “a study” (and then it fails to mention who commissioned the study [edit- reading the article again, Ebay commisiioned it], or any data whatsoever). It then quotes Ebay as saying that “slow connection speeds, payments timing out, and network reliability” were barriers that would be “effectively eliminated by 4G”

E&S Article

From the Express and Star, 31-10-2012. Unmitigated bollocks.
Click to embiggen.

This is starting to look like a Daily Mash Story with bold assertions, quotes from imaginary experts, and meaningless, unqualified stats.

I’m now drowning in bullshit. As my dear friend Andy points out there’s so much marketing crap here, and as a tech who is asked to provide solutions to people who read this shit, it’s wearing very thin.

Does the lack of mobile internet really cost sales? Maybe a few. A smartphone is a crappy way to browse Amazon or Ebay, with small screens and no proper keyboard. I’m sure a smartphone app will improve this, as would using a tablet, which may well have mobile data capability, but £120 million? really? Will people not just wait until they’re at home/work/Starbucks?

If 3G was actually available everywhere, it would do just fine for present-day Internet shopping, being about as fast as many people’s fixed-line ADSL. Of course given time, bandwidth requirements will rise: the Internet of the 90s coped on 33.6-56Kbit/sec, whereas now even 10 times that seems sluggish, so we will need 4G one day, and yes, installation should start now, but it’s not a requirement right now, and a good job too, because it will take a good while.

4G will not magically fix poor coverage, and will, trust me, cost a lot of money to implement.

I do find the tech industry very frustrating: the false promises, the use of tech terms as (inaccurate) buzzwords, the assumption that a “new” technology will magically make everything rosy. The shiny adverts, and the shiny-suited salesmen that perpetuate the myths. It must be very confusing for those of us that don’t have a deeply cynical view…

Gee-up

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

This morning’s BBC breakfast was full of hype for the launch of 4G data. In theory this sounds great: mobile data has changed our world, from smartphones and tablets to remote telemetry, data logging, and security applications without the need for cabling. We can, at least in theory, stream movies or music, read our email, telework, and tweet a load of shite from anywhere. The networks are now crowing about their superfast performance, their fibre backbones, and anything else they can spin into saying how great they are.

One problem: this is all still radio. Radio needs masts, and residents hate masts, even before the electrosensitivity loonies get going. Without masts, and even with them sometimes, depending on environment, coverage suffers. Plus of course, masts, and the backhaul all cost cash too.

This means that, practically, in some areas, the current 3G/2G connectivity is non-existent or so slow to be practically useless: down the road in WS9 9LR coverage is so poor for Vodafone that voice calls and SMS messages barely work, and data is unusable. Walsall Wood may not be a huge metropolis, but it’s not a rural backwater either, and the same applies to suburban Pelsall and Rushall, where you can find similar holes.

I was complaining about this seven years ago, when 3G data was a niche product.

If you go into the centre of Birmingham, you can easily see 3Mbit/sec: faster than some home broadband, and fast enough to run an entire office from (trust me, I have done it), but outside the city, coverage can have some huge holes: this is why, for example, NXWM’s trial of wi-fi on buses didn’t catch on: the only way to backhaul the data from the bus is over 3G, and by the time you have a busful of people, and the router keeps dropping out, it becomes painful- the same applies to the West Coast Main Line, and that has a fixed route.

In summary: Phone networks: stop bullshitting us. Cut the shiny marketing, bullshit about fibre optics and other tech terms littering the adverts: just make the existing 3G service work before you try to flog us the replacement. Let me be able to tweet bollocks from the pub, or fire up my VPN from a house in Pelsall that doesn’t have broadband.

NB: I’m only picking on Vodafone here because I have more experience of them, and because they’re ‘Best Network’ of the year as voted by Mobile Choice Consumer Awards. They all have the same problems, in different places.


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