Coded TCP

Originally published in The Clarion | October 31, 2012

It isn’t often that IT folks like me have a lot to get excited about. Sure there are always new gadgets, software, Web sites and apps but those things are marginally interesting at best most of the time. The things that really get us going are advancements in the core technologies that we all depend on. Whether it’s an entirely new technology or an improvement to an existing one, these are the things that really catch our attention and as a result keep us on our toes. An improvement on an existing piece of technology – more specifically a vital aspect of networking communications – was recently announced that will most likely have a tremendous impact on the technologies that most of use each and every day.

This “new” technology – Coded TCP – will have, once implemented, an unbelievable impact on data communications, especially in the ever-expanding world of wireless. TCP, or the Transmission Control Protocol, is virtually always combined with IP – the Internet Protocol – to provide reliable, orderly delivery of data from one host or device to another. Because of its inherent responsibility for reliable communications, poor network conditions can cause all sorts of issues with data communications when TCP data is sent but not received properly. If a segment of data does not reach its destination, TCP immediately attempts to remedy this issue, requesting that the lost or corrupt data be resent. You can imagine how much unnecessary data might be generated if network conditions are poor. On a typical wired network, such retransmissions aren’t usually necessary (assuming the wired network is properly designed and the attached hosts aren’t spewing rogue data). In the world of wireless though, all sorts of external variables can easily create poor network conditions, causing very high instances of data retransmissions. This is where Coded TCP saves the day.

By adding in something many of us learned in high school – algebra – Coded TCP eliminates the need for lost data packets to be retransmitted. By adding in algebraic expressions to the transmitted data, the receiving end of a data stream can simply “do the math” if data is either not received or corrupt, eliminating the need for the originating host to re-send. The result is simple – the receiving host gets its data as expected, except in a much more reliable fashion. Real-world tests have showed almost unbelievable results by using Coded TCP in place of traditional TCP. In one test at MIT, Wi-Fi data transfer rates increased from 1Mbps to 16Mbps by simply using Coded TCP. No new or additional hardware was utilized. The data was simply coded differently with the addition of algebraic expressions. Another test on a moving train increased transfer rates from 0.5Mbps to 13.5Mbps, again only by changing to Coded TCP. This technology has the potential to revolutionize wireless data communications, I simply cannot wait for it to be implemented industry-wide.

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The Unfortunate State of Technology

Originally published in The Clarion | October 24, 2012

For some time I have pondered the current state of technology, both from a world-wide perspective all the way down to individuals. While my perception may be a bit skewed, I feel there are several factors or truths in the various technology industries that are interesting to say the least. For example, it is interesting to me how some large corporations seem to play by an “it’s all or nothing” rule book where their entire catalog of offerings – from hardware to software and everything in between – only function within their umbrella of products and services. On the other hand, I can look at another global corporation and notice how their products and services are on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Compatibility, for the most part, is priority and the more functional their products and services are with those of their competition, the better. Take both of these scenarios and add in the fact that the specific corporations I am referring to are both extremely successful (and profitable), and I simply leave this analysis shaking my head.

One truth that I have finally come to terms with, albeit against my better judgement, is that people seem to care that their devices and software applications simply work more than who it was designed and sold by or even the hidden ramifications that might come upon purchasing the device or software. It seems to me that the public in general has virtually no interest in how a device functions. As long as the device works, the consumer is happy. From there, the consumer plays by the rules of the manufacturer when he or she wants to add another device or service to their gadgetry collection. Whether it’s specific proprietary software (often sold only by the manufacturer) or an accessory for their gadget (again, often only sold by the manufacturer), some companies have done a very good job of marketing their products so well that once a consumer buys in, they’re essentially in it for life.

I am not going to mention specific corporations in this article, if you know me well enough I’m sure you have by now figured out who I am referring to. My point in this evaluation is simple – the world of technology doesn’t have to be – nor can it afford to be – a one-way monopolistic street. Openness in technology, to me at least, makes the most sense. Enough with the silliness of the patent game, enough of the “great you bought my gadget – now you’re mine!” mentality. In the end, the game is resulting in poorer products and services. A recent statistic showed that at least one large technology corporation “invested” more in legal disputes last year than in research and development. What a shame. Hopefully this trend does not continue.

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Ways to Ensure Safe Browsing

Originally published in The Clarion | October 17, 2012

The Web can be a very dangerous place, and the reasons are many. From transferring sensitive data like online banking to simple things we take for granted like eMail, very rarely is there an online situation that is entirely safe. Most typical communications protocols are not inherently secure; add to that unsecured wireless networks and we have nothing less than the perfect mixture for disaster. Fortunately though, with a little education and modifications to not only the software applications we use but also our browsing habits, simple measures can go a very long way to help ensure a safer Web.

More than once I have mentioned how obvious it should be to secure both home and office wireless networks. Unencrypted wireless traffic combined with less than poor protection on connected devices can’t possibly lead to anything good. Once the obvious has been addressed and taken care of, several other measures can be taken to help ensure online safety. For starters, never – and I mean this in the context of “without exception” – never respond to an eMail message asking you for your username and password to anything. I cannot think of any circumstance where anyone – your Internet Service Provider, financial institution, school – would legitimately ask for such critical information via eMail. It isn’t going to happen (legitimately that is). The best thing to do if you receive a message asking for your credentials is to simply delete the message. If you are uncomfortable doing this without gaining additional information first, pick up the phone and get a live body to answer your questions. Then delete the message.

Another smart habit when using the Web is to use the secure version of the HTTP protocol whenever possible. You will probably be surprised at how many common sites you visit every day have an alternate secure destination. To do this, simply type https:// (instead of the typical http://) before the address you wish to go to. HTTP Secure adds a security layer on top of the typical HTTP protocol which allows for both verification that the accessed site is truly who they claim to be and encryption of the “conversation” between you and them. It’s a simple measure that results in enormous benefits.

Finally, smart browsing should be the number-one consideration if you use a shared computer. This might be a computer in a public library, a hotel lobby or anywhere else that your data could be compromised. All modern web browsers include or allow a feature called incognito browsing. Once enabled, everything you do on the Web will remain in the browser’s memory (for lack of a better term) until you end the incognito session. This includes any cookies that may be downloaded, any usernames you might enter into login boxes – everything. The most important thing to remember here of course is to end the incognito session once you’re done. Smart and safe browsing isn’t very hard to accomplish, simply take the necessary mesasures and think about what you’re doing to ensure your online safety.

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Microsoft’s Upcoming Metro Debut

Originally published in The Clarion | October 10, 2012

There are so many things going on in the world of IT, sometimes it is difficult to focus on just one subject for an article. This week I have decided to simply ramble about a few items that have recently caught my attention, hopefully some will be of interest to you. I am often amazed at strategies chosen by some of the largest corporations in the world. With Microsoft’s official release date of their new operating system – Windows 8 – scheduled for later this month, there is quite a buzz in the realm of IT. For starters, there are mixed emotions about the new “Metro” interface that is built in to Windows 8. You may remember from a previous article that I absolutely hate what Microsoft has done. It is a double-edged sword for me. On one side, I feel that Windows 8 will absolutely flop, especially on the desktop, as Windows 8’s Metro interface is unlike anything a typical user has ever used. Odds are very good that Metro is going to seem entirely foreign to you. If you are in the market for a new PC, please let me stress how important it is that you try Windows 8 at one of the big-box stores before purchasing a new PC with it pre-installed. On the other hand, Windows 8 is likely to create a tech support nightmare for those of us in the business.

Microsoft has also announced, or at least hinted, that they plan to develop and sell their own smartphone. My only guess is that their strategy is to somehow push Windows 8 into the market as much as possible. One can only speculate that they don’t foresee it being much of a success in the PC market. It is fair to say that the design, look and feel of Metro in Windows 8 is more geared toward mobile devices. Considering this, it only makes sense that Microsoft would do all they can to get Metro into the marketplace on devices for which it seemingly fits. Too bad for them though that iOS from Apple and Android from Google pretty much have that market niche already wrapped up.

With Windows 8’s premiere just around the corner, I find it very interesting that there is suddenly a lot of chatter about Apple bringing a new product to market – the iPad Mini. While there are very few details about this new device available at this time, if the rumors hold true it is slated to go into production any day now and one can only anticipate its debut will coincide with (and most likely rain on) Microsoft’s Windows 8 parade. I just love competition in the marketplace – especially when the biggest of the giants go into head-to-head combat. We can only wait to see what happens but I have a good hunch that Microsoft is going to once again take a hit and come up short on their expectations with Windows 8.

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The Internet of Things

Originally published in The Clarion | October 03, 2012

Everywhere we go, it seems we are surrounded by the Internet. Sure there are exceptions – remote campgrounds, parks and woodlands – but even most of these locations are covered by some sort of cellular signal. If there is one solid truth concerning our future, we will never return to a time where communication actually required some effort. There is a newer technology on the horizon, one that can be considered both exciting and troubling, that promises to alter how we as humans function and possibly even bring about some of the Sci-Fi scenarios that were once only ideas of fantasy.

As we take a closer look at this technology, it must once again be pointed out that the Web is not the Internet. Simply put, the World Wide Web uses the Internet as a communications mechanism. The Internet can function just fine without the Web, the Web must have the Internet in order to exist. With that clarification out of the way, this new technology – the “Internet of Things” (IoT) – should make more sense. The basic idea, in generic terms, of the IoT is that any and essentially every “thing” can be “connected”. From traffic signals to toothbrushes, dishwashers to tennis shoes, in the IoT everything has a presence and contributes to the network. Just what the item contributes is dictated by the manufacturer or company that retrofits the item to the network. This may sound confusing, hopefully an example will help.

Let’s use a common clothes dryer for our example. Most of us are familiar with this item, it has been a common home appliance for a very long time. We know how to operate it and typically don’t even have to think about what we’re doing when we put it to use. This same clothes dryer, when added to the IoT still serves the same function for the user, but has additional capabilities. In the IoT, the dryer can notify its owner that the lint filter needs cleaning long before it becomes clogged. It can also communicate to the manufacturer or vendor that the timer is failing and needs to be replaced. These added functions occur without any human intervention – something drastically different from the Internet-related technologies that we are familiar with today.

Devices in the IoT will produce data on their own. On top of this, IoT device data can be exchanged between other IoT devices to generate even more data – data that can be used for an untold number of functions. Traffic signals will be able to sense congestion and communicate to other signals in their vicinity, instructing them to modify their sequences until the congestion lessens. Tons of other ideas and examples exist, these are just a few. No matter our thoughts on this new technology, one thing is certain. The IoT is coming and will, without a doubt, alter our daily lives.

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