Tuesday, March 5, 2013

. . . the Organized Internet Life?

A minor blip that caused the disconnection of my always-on Internet connection at home prompted me to do something that I have not done in a very long time: think about my Internet connection.


My connection to the Internet is such that I hardly ever actually think about it because it works the way it is supposed to; the result of that is that I don't need to think about it.  When it briefly did not work the way it was supposed to - and I have no idea why that happened due mostly to the fact that right about the time I was logging in to my firewall to check the connection log to see if there was a useful bit of information about the reason that it dropped its connection, the connection came back up and I was back online.  That being the case, why bother trying to diagnose the cause, right?

Except I was already thinking about my Internet connection at this point, and that little voice in the back of my head that usually gets me into trouble was not-too-calmly yelling to get my attention, before it rudely pointed out to me that the rack full of hardware in my basement that represents my connection to the world was about to celebrate its tenth birthday...

Fifteen Years or so in the past, on a Cold Dark Night
I am not exaggerating when I say that the last time that I dealt with the infrastructure for our network connection and Internet capabilities was fully ten years ago.  Well, with the exception of the WiFi Router that I added slightly less than five years ago, but still...

To fully appreciate the situation we actually have to jump into the Wayback Machine and travel back to the month of November, in the year 1997, which was the time when I actually deployed the computer network that we still use here at Chez Boots-Faubert.  This is ancient history; these are events that took place back before I lost my mobility and could still walk.  This was back when I had worked with my best friend to plan out the most efficient and secure Ethernet network that we could manage at the time, using the cutting-edge tech from the previous century!

The view of my backyard taken on the same late-afternoon day of the great Ethernet Deployment Event, this is what the world outside looked like...
While a blustery day was coming to a close and an equally blustery evening was setting in, the inhabitants of Chez Boots-Faubert were in the process of doing their best to fulfill the roles that nature had forced upon them by circumstance and necessity.  

If we embrace the comforting formality of taxonomy, the population at those coordinates in the time-space continuum consisted of a family grouping of four Homo sapiens who are known by the unique identifying sounds that form the names Chris, Yvonne, Peter, and Autumn, and who were joined by a very close friend -- who answered to the grouping of sounds that follow the verbal pattern Geo-Fry -- and who is also a member of the species Home Sapiens and if not a blood relation than as close as one can be related to another without sharing the same genetic genealogy...

In addition to this grouping of generally homogenous humans of northern European stock, there was also present at this auspicious occasion a trio of Felis catus whose nyms were Nixie, Pixie, and Mischief, and who claimed the environs of the office and Domestic Network Hub (DNH) as a  physical domain of which they jointly ruled by force of will and snickity claws.  

It may interest you to learn that earlier in the day the human known as Yvonne effected the rescue of a sole member of the species Peromyscus maniculatus who was so unfortunate as to cross the path of the one known as "Nixie" who was, by all accounts, a fierce warrior of many claws, and who could be counted upon to defend the various territories to which he laid claim, either separately or jointly with his two brothers.

It is therefore rather remarkable that the one known as Yvonne was able not only to effect the rescue of the Peromyscus maniculatus, but due to circumstances that would require too much background to explain to our mutual satisfaction was also able to provide him with protective shelter in the form of a habitat of proper dimension and security design, equipped with all of the comforts one of that species might reasonably expect. Or even unreasonably expect.

These comforts included a 10oz bottle recently filled with fresh and cool supply of a life-giving liquid substance that is constructed from one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds and obtained via a complex network of piping provided to the community as part of its cooperative efforts towards shared health and comfort, but that is the subject of another and completely unrelated story, and besides which that substance does not mix well with computer networks, I am just saying...

In addition to the aforementioned self-service bottle, the habitat was equipped with a feeding tray that was recently filled with Ground Corn, Soybean Meal, Wheat Mill Run, Alfalfa Hay Suncured, Ground Barley, Whole Corn, Oat Groats, Whole Wheat, Soybean Roasted, Sunflower Seed, Whole Kamut, Cane Molasses Dried, Apple Dried, Flax Seed (which happens to be an excellent source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids which make up a very important part of a proper diet for the typical example of a Peromyscus maniculatus), Yeast Culture, Cranberry Dehydrated, Salt, Sodium Bentonite, Sodium Phosphate, Lignin Sulfonate, Soybean Oil (which is preserved with Mixed Tocopherols, and anyone can tell you that Mixed Tocopherols is an excellent source for Vitamin E), Choline Chloride, Calcium Carbonate, L-Lysine, DL-Methionine, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Vitamin E Supplement, Zinc Sulfate, Iron Sulfate, Zinc Proteinate, Niacin, SeleniumYeast, Copper Sulfate, Biotin, Manganese Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Supplement, Sodium Selenite, Vitamin B2 Riboflavin, Vitamin B1 Thiamin Mononitrate, Magnesium Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Vitamin B6, Pyridoxine HCl, Folic Acid, Cobalt Carbonate, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Calcium Iodate, and Ethylenediamine Dihydroiodide.

 In addition to all of that there was an exercise wheel! 

It should be mentioned that this very well-equipped habitat was previously the home of an unusually long-lived member of the species Mus musculus whose name was "Gunther" but who had departed this mortal coil on a journey to the designated coordinates in the space-time continuum listed in the TARDIS NavCore as "The Rainbow Bridge."

As Gunther belonged to the species Mus musculus and was a particularly moral character among that species we feel that it can safely be presumed that his name was down in the book maintained by the 
maître d’hôtel in that place (for surely when one ponders the known facts, one can only conclude that a maître d’hôtel would be a bare necessity in a realm in which "There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable" it seems reasonable that some level of competent management must be present, n'est-ce pas?

The members of the family served by the newest Network to be created on planet earth are from left to right and front to back Yvonne, Autumn (seated in the most comfortable seat available when The Big Comfy Couch is not around) and Peter (on the right) pictured here in the rustic environment known as the Domestic Network Hub.

In any event that newest member of the family took up residence in the former home of Gunther, and was instantly granted the sobriquet of "Lucky" for obvious reasons.

It was therefore into this mixture of human and animal that the plan to bring forth a new Network on the face of the earth was hatched and quickly executed!

The Well-Designed Network
As a measure of how serious the project of properly building the Domestic Ethernet Network was, it can be understood and agreed that the design and its deployment included the most modern of Ethernet tech at the time...

While the physical network consisted of 10bT properly deployed to network base plates at the terminus for each drop, all of the wire funneled back to a patch panel installed in the relay rack that was itself installed beside the pair of industry-standard 19" Equipment Racks, with one rack dedicated to the hardware that served the internal network, while the second was dedicated to the hardware that existed within the DMZ for the network, providing the services for the public side of the connection which included but were not limited to a Primary DNS Server, an SMTP and POP3 Server, a Web Server, and a dedicated FTP Server.

On the inside rack was housed a pair of file servers - one for strictly business while the second was more of a media server than a file server in the sense that it had a large number of inexpensive hard drives as well as a 10-disc CD Tower and an Tuner Card that was installed in the server to allow the users on the network to use its dedicated web page to select the programs that they wanted it to record for their later viewing from its Cable TV link.  At the time that was pretty cutting-edge!

Pictured here is Chris in the process of connecting the 10bT drops to the patch panel.  On the right is the house rack.
Once all of the drops were connected to the patch panel, a pair of Kalpana 10bT Ethernet Switches were installed to the relay rack and then patched into the panel to create the network, with the final connection being made to the firewall and Internet Router.  At the time the network connection consisted of a mated pair of 128k ISDN lines, offering a combined speed of 256k which was the best connection that could be obtained in that era.  Considering that the average user in 1997 still connected to the Internet via a 28.8k modem, this was pretty darn fast for a household 'net connection!

About ten years ago DSL finally became available on the Cape and it was at that point that the second to last major update to the Network was made.  The paired ISDN was replaced with a DSL connection that offers something in the neighborhood of 3MB...

Three years ago when one of the ancient Kalpana 10bT Ethernet Switches died on us, forcing us to move all of our connections to the second Kalpana and divide the physical switch into two virtual switches, we realized that something had to be done, so when the next MIT Flea took place (the MIT Flea takes place in the parking garage at MIT on the 3rd Sunday of the month, April thru October and if you have never been you should go, it is really an experience).

So we drove in to Cambridge and bought a pair of softly-used 3Com SuperStack III Gigabit Ethernet Switches to replace the Kalpana, and that is where the situation stands.  Well, that and five or so years ago we added WiFi to the mix because the kids complained a lot about how their iPads and iPhones, needed to be able to connect to the online world...

What Will Be New Will Be New?
So this tiny blip on the radar of our personal connection to the Internet naturally set me to thinking about the fact that the infrastructure of our domestic network is essentially a mixture of different hardware that ranges in age from 5 to 15 years old!  Clearly it is time to seriously consider updating the network, right?  Right!

Going completely wireless is not an option.  Forget for the moment that some of the devices that we use - the IP-based security cameras for example - get their power from the network, there is also the question of security.  It is one thing to create a WiFi connection on an isolated virtual switch so that your kids and surf the world on their iDevices, but it is entirely another matter to declare wireless as a secure standard and connect your life to the world in that fashion.  Just saying.

So the network will remain wired.  But since we already ran the physical wire drops that works out fine.

Having said that though, there is still a need for WiFi and it is getting bigger not smaller!  The iDevices that originally prompted adding a WiFi point of presence to the net have now been joined by wireless phones in general, plus handheld gaming consoles like the Nintendo DS and 3DS, Sony's PSP and Vita, and to a limited degree the traditional consoles themselves, though personally I find that the wired connection for our Xbox360 consoles is still the faster and more reliable way to go...

Sony's PS3 offers built-in wireless (so does the 360) but this is 2013, the year that Microsoft and Sony will be introducing their next gen game consoles, and until we see what direction they are going to take for those, there is no point even speculating, is there?

In this day and age each human user requires accessibility for the following devices at a minimum:
  • Wireless Phone data connectivity
  • Media device (iPad/iPhone basically)
  • Traditional Game Console(s)
  • Portable Game Console(s)
  • Laptop/Notebook Computer
  • Desktop Computer
While that covers the typical human we still need to have full support for the following devices:
  • File Server
  • Media Server
  • Shared Network Printer
  • IP-based security cams
  • Internet-Connected and Skype-enabled TV's
  • Internet-connected Cable DVR
And all of that means that in addition to replacing the ancient WiFi switch it is time to replace the Ethernet Switches, but with what?  

There is no easy answer off-the-cuff, but then this is just the opening act in what will, I am sure, turn out to be a long series on upgrading the network.  

If you think about it the fact that we already have all these devices that each have their own connection requirements makes this whole process even more complicated than it would be if we simply chucked everything out and started from scratch!

I bet this guy could quickly solve the WiFi speed issues on our network...

WiFi Weak?
When we first installed a WiFi router on the network it was mostly used by the kids to download songs from iTunes and games for their DS's - activities that while I am sure they used the available bandwidth when they were doing them never really presented an issue when it came to available bandwidth...  

So you can probably imagine my surprise when I started to hear complaints from the kids about how the "net was so slow" all the time.  I could not see the slowness that they were talking about - it seemed fine to me - but then I was using computers and game consoles that were connected to the network via wires, and they were using their preferred devices on the WiFi side of the network.

I could not imagine how a pair of teenagers using iPads and the like could possible be using that connection to the point that they actually impacted the quality of speed for each other, so I assumed that it was something else - some other radio-based device must be stepping on the channel that the WiFi was using, right?

Naturally I logged into the Admin interface and changed the channel that the WiFi used, and told them I had "fixed" the problem.  Except that the next bored period when they were both using YouTube and Hulu and all of the other bandwidth intensive apps that they used, they again complained about the speed.

Once the complaining reached a fevered pitch I asked my daughter to show me the problem, and low and behold it turned out that they were not imagining things!  As we sat and she tried to watch Netflix on her iPad while her brother was using YouTube and playing Minecraft with one of this mates the TV show that she was watching would sputter and pause while it was forced to re-cache.

'This should not be happening" was my first thought.  But as it turned out when I did a little research into the matter, yes, yes it should.  While both of the kids would likely not have noticed anything if they were using their computers and portable media devices to do things like email, web surf, and the like, once you introduce bandwidth-intensive activities like Netflix and Hulu, and online games with high network activity (a lot of the war games that my son plays qualify in that regard) you are now sharing a limited amount of bandwidth.

What I ended up doing was switching my son's Xbox to a wired connection, and that pretty much solved the problem for the most part, giving my daughter's iPad sole access to the wireless pipe that it clearly needed, but considering how many devices today are being made with WiFi as the preferred connectivity (think portable devices) it is clear to me that WiFi on your home network can no longer be a side-thought.  You have to plan your network with WiFi in mind if you are going to deliver the sort of user satisfaction that teenagers have come to expect :)

Short of outlawing Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and other video services (I could do that, it is just a few lines added to the filter on the firewall) it is clear to me that it is time to rethink the models that we have been using to plan out network capacity today.

Just where is Mr. Wizard when we need him?!

Time to Dust Off the Thinking Cap
As nice as it would be if there was a simple answer to the problem, there isn't.  So this post is not going to conclude with a neat solution, other than to remind me that it is time to start researching the current tech and to begin looking for a usable solution to the problem - but on the bright side, at least I know what the problem is!

As for the rest, I will have to get back you on that...

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