Tuesday 31 January 2012

Where is your Cloud?

I've just seen an announcement for an Equinix "Super Core Site" i.e. an important data center. It is located in the Amsterdam Science Park.

The Amsterdam Science Park is located in Watergraafsmeer Polder. To remind people a Polder is an area of low lying land enclosed by dykes. Normally this is reclaimed land.

Here's a quote about the locality: "Watergraafsmeer mainly compromises a polder, which was called "Watergraftsmeer" in former times. The polder has arisen in 1629 after draining the Diemermeer, which formed the connection between the Amstel and the Nieuwe Diep (the New Deep). On March 5th, 1651 however the dike between the Zuiderzee and the Nieuwe Diep, the Diemerzeedijk broke, whereupon also the polder dike broke and the Watergraafsmeer got flooded." 

I'm sure Equinix have taken the geographic location into account when choosing the site, but it does highlight the issues you need to consider and questions to ask when choosing a hosting company for your servers or cloud.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Free Cooling

Water side economizers

This technique extracts heat using an economizer from the returning water (coolant) before it reaches the chiller unit. This reduces the heat load on the chiller. The chiller unit consumes a lot of power to remove heat from the water before pumping it to the air handling units in a data centre.

This type of economizer works best if the ambient air temperature outside of the building is cool. It might take the shape of a free air heat exchanger where the "hot water" is cooled without any compression except some form of pump to circulate the water. Air convection removes some of the excess heat. It might be some type of evaporative cooler (example1, example2) where a water mist spray removes heat. In some case this may be a geothermal buried pipe loop system or borehole where excess heat is transferred to the soil.

This type of installation can generally be retro-fitted without too much disruption of the existing air condition system.

Air side economizers

These work by taking cold air from the outside of the building and feeding it directly into the air conditioning ducts. Hot air generated by the equipment is vented to the outside air. Simple in concept but it is not always easy to retro-fit. The technique can make substantial savings in the energy bill. It was known to our grandfathers as "opening a window" when the room gets too hot.

The incoming air has to be humidity controlled (de-humidified/re-humidified) and filtered to remove dust. The building also has to have sufficient air conditioning plant to handle the situation when the free cooling air side economizers cannot be used. It may be too hot, too smoky or too dusty at certain times of the year to use the air from outside of the building. There's a useful discussion here.

Retro-fitting such a system might involve substantial changes to the air duct system and can be difficult in data centres where hot air removal is not in place.

Other ideas

Other techniques such as hot/cold aisle, hot air containment, equipment cabinet blanking panels, pumpable ice, increased ambient data centre temperature, can be used to reduce the energy bill.Here's a free cooling system by Stulz.

Friday 27 January 2012

Is your Data Centre host secure?

I went to a Cloud services exhibition at Olympia yesterday. On the trip, so thoughtfully extended in duration by London Underground managers, I was reading the free Metro newspaper. One of the articles by Aidan Radnedge was titled "Business elite: Earnings gap will fuel riots across Europe." It was a report on part of the action at the World Economic Conference in Davos. The general view supported by a Bloomberg poll was that the disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the world will lead to protests.

I'd predict that some of the people/organisations who come under fire will be Bankers and their premises. There is in effect a greatly increased risk of the Bankers' infrastructure coming under targeted attacks in the next couple of years. It will not be just the blind anger of the mobs, but also calculated very damaging attacks by informed intelligent individuals intent on damaging the operations of the financial companies.

During my visit at the exhibition I visited the stands of several large data centre hosting companies to discuss developments in their offerings. As part of the discussion I threw in a couple of security questions about their operational procedures. I'm sad to say every one of those companies "failed" those simple security questions. The question was about methods by which rioters, malicious agents or hostile governments could use to disable the computing facilities at their data centres. The general response was "Oh, we hadn't thought of that. I'll have to check."

The questions I'd posed were fairly simple, but in the interests of security I'll not reveal them here. I'm happy to discuss them with any bona fide company representative off-line. If the line of attack I'd proposed was followed it could be used to simultaneously defeat geographically dispersed data centres. The perpetrators would be well away from the scene when the damage occurred. I know of one hosting company who reviewed and changed their procedures after I'd asked the same questions of them during an inspection visit.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Protecting cables and data links.

In these days of increased cable theft and also data intrusion businesses must protect their infrastructure from damage. Losing a major power cable on your site  or having a multi-pair copper cable stolen can inflict significant economic damage on your organisation. Fortunately there are optical fibre monitoring technique which can monitor the entire length of your cable and/of ducting. Some systems can protect up to 80 Km with a single controlling device yet pinpoint the site of the damage/intrusion to within a few metres. Such techniques can detect the vibration of interference with the cable before actual damage occurs and then trigger suitable alarms. To achieve the monitoring you'll need a spare dark fibre or lay a suitable fibre along the route you want to protect.

There are several companies providing such protection but FFT Secure Link is a good example.

Some people think data transmitted over optical fibre is inherently secure. In fact it is relatively easy to tap a fibre by exposing the fibre and bending it over a curved form. This will induce a slight laser leakage which can be monitored without alerting the owner of the cable. If you install a vibration sensing alert on one of the fibres in the bundle you'll be able to raise an alert that the cable is being disturbed.
Of course another approach is to encrypt data/video/voice along the link, but this can be expensive if there are multiple fibres to protect.

Monday 23 January 2012

Speed your data access by short stroking

Short stroking is a technique to improve the performance of hard disk drives by reducing the area accessed by the movement disk read heads to the part of the disk where performance is the best. If you can reduce the physical movement of the disk read/write arm it will improve performance. Here's one article in the Tom's Hardware blog which describes the fundamentals. You in effect trade off disk capacity against speed. In the Tom's Hardware blog they are achieving data transfer rates of 157 MB per second. It is not actually a new technique, rather it is rediscovered. I remember studying back in the 1970's about how to improve performance by positioning key files on the fast part of the disks. This was during System Analysis training. Back in those days the system analyst/designer really had to understand computer hardware characteristics! The more recent interpretation of this technique works by changing hardware parameters rather than by careful file placement. However if you allow the wrong type of file to take up residence on the disk the gains can be lost. It is worth paging through the Tom's Hardware article to the conlusion.

There is another article here relating to short stroking Barracuda drives.

As an example it may be an efficient technique if the important database index tables are stored on a short stroked drive. As fast SSD hardware (solid state drives) becomes less expensive the relevance of short stroking will become less, but until then this may be a cost effective approach to reducing disk bottle necks.

Friday 20 January 2012

Desktop PC Screen extenders

In some trading floor/control room situations it is sometimes useful to be able to have a significant physical separation between the base unit of a PC and its screen/keyboard. This is well known as KVM technology. Some of the reasons for doing this can be security issues, lack of local cooling, space constraints or the need to eliminate the noise of PC fans.

We've built trading floors where all of the PCs are located in a locked technology room with UTP CAT6 cable extension to the trading desks. The design reduced heat and noise at the trading desk and it also eliminated a lot of under-desk equipment. We introduced structured cable patch panels which gave us the ability to quickly move individuals while retaining access to individual PCs. The IT infrastructure allowed for "hot desk" sign-on, but in some cases it was more convenient to allow a trader to always use the same (remote) PC.

In some cases it would allow the PC system units to be located where "free cooling" is readily available, thus reducing the need for investment and operational cost of air conditioning.

Matrox provide specialist technology such as the Extio  and Avio systems which will deliver a fast delay free KVM extension for up to 1000 Metres over single optical fibre. They can support multiple screens, mouse, keyboard and USB. These systems are not necessarily cheap. A single pair of units for a system is in the region of of £2000 depending on the capability, but in some circumstances this is the most economical way of meeting the need.

For trading floors one of the other players is Wey Technology. There is a large price tab, but these people are widely used and have loads of experience in trading room and control room environments. Similar results can be achieved with desktop virtualisation and/or thin computing, but it is not always the most appropriate business/technical solution.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Motivating engineering graduates in USA.

I was doing some research into flywheel based UPS systems as a power back up for data centres and trading floors when I came across this video clip (youtube). It shows highly relevant information for students who may be considering engineering as a career. The company is Beacon Power in the USA. They make high tech fly wheel kinetic energy stores which are destined for use in smoothing the peaks and troughs in the USA energy grid. The viseo is one of a series promoted by NEMA.  It would be good if the UK engineering companies promoted their career opportunities in a similar fashion.

As an aside this is the company I was looking at for Generator/Flywheel UPS systems for a data centre. Ignoring all of their OTT marketing hype, it looks quite promising.

London Underground vs Olympia Exhibition Centre

Last year in a bid to "improve" District Line services stopped running trains on the spur line between Earls Court and London Olympia tube stations. The man with a spreadsheet strikes again. Following representations it was announced that limited service would be run on the line when there were events at the Olympia Exhibition halls.

Last week I experienced those limited tube services on my way to the BETT 2012 exhibition. When I arrived at Earls Court tube station around 10:40 I hunted for an indication as to when the next tube train would run to Olympia. They used to run four trains an hour. According to published times I should have expected a train at 10:44; but in reality it was chaotic. After a five minute wait a tannoy announcement proclaimed a 30 minute wait for the next train.

Fortunately I knew the route to the Olympia Exhibition Centre so I opted for the 15 minute walk instead of waiting for an improbable tube train. Fortunately the weather was good and I arrived a little sweaty but within a reasonable time.

Coincidentally this week I received an email from the organisers of the BETT exhibition, which is a very large exhibition for technology in education. They plan to hold their 2013 exhibition at the Docklands Excel Exhibition Centre, Strangely enough the tube connections are a lot better for the more recent centre. Olympia had been their venue for several previous years, but after the District Line debacle they seem to have changed their minds.

How can London Underground/Transport For London justify the isolation of the Olympia Exhibition Centre?

Update:18th May 2012
There is an alternative route, but it means catching an Underground train to another station, then waiting for another train in the open air to go to Olympia. I generally just walk between Earls Court and Olympia, but only when I'm prepared for rain!

Sunday 15 January 2012

Delivering chilled water to Trading floor?

It is sometimes necessary to deliver chilled water to a position on a trading floor. Perhaps it is necessary to provide spot cooling for one or more trading desks or for an air conditioning unit. The problem with running such piping under a raised floor is condensation that will form on the pipe if the water is too cool. The pipe also needs to be insulated or lagged to avoid thermal loss.  Ideally the pipe should also be provided with drip tray and leak detection sensing. The work needed to retrofit such pipe work, if copper, usually involves hot work for the soldered joints. This can be an expensive, risky and time consuming process.
One interesting approach to this is to use a pre-insulated plastic pipe. Durapipe have a pre-insulated system which saves on labour during fitting. It is called Duracool.

There are some negative pressure chilled water delivery systems for in cabinet/door cooling Data Centre cabinets which can be used to reduce the risk of leakage if applied to a trading floor.

Edit: 25th Jan 2012
I've been contacted by a Swiss company Erich Keller who make trading desk systems (and other products) who say their desk cooling system does not create condensation. On their brochure it is referred to as a high temperature system; I've asked for further information.

HDMI Extenders

On trading floors, reception area, command centres, hotels there is often the need to remotely place a large display screen for user/public viewing. HDMI is increasingly used to convey the image signal. Such cable costs about $2 a foot ($5 metre approx) and often has to be retro fitted. I've come across a handy converter adaptor pair which will run HDMI for 100 ft over existing a pair of  UTP CAT5e or 150 ft over CAT6 LAN cables.

For greater distances there is a similar adapter pair which will run HDMI across a single multimode optical fibre for up to 305 metres. Great for avoidance of power ground loops. This option also supports remote control.

Thursday 12 January 2012

What protects the Boss's iPhone?

The glass used on the iPhone touch surface is a thin chemically tempered glass made by Corning.
At the CES 2012 show Corning have announced a version 2 of the glass which is thinner than the glass currently used on the iPhone. The glass is in use by many other vendors of smart phone and tablets, for example Samsung.

The video (flash) is an advertisement from Corning. The are a couple of other interesting videos available once the advert has played.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

A change in School ICT?

Michael Gove has announced a change in the way UK schools teach computing skills to school children. It will be interesting to see how they schools will provide sufficient teachers with knowledge of computer science. It is suggested  there will be move away from teaching general office computing to teaching the kids how to write programs.

I wonder how treating the subject as a science/engineering discipline will go down with the kids?  Learning IT skills used to be a strong career path, but there have been repeated signals from UK businesses that this is not a highly valued skill when IT staff have been the first to be cut and replaced by outsourcing/offshoring.

Bank moves to Google

In an interesting development a large spanish bank with a large overseas branch network has committed to using Google's Business Apps for its office computing, IM Chats and desk top conferencing. Here is a BBC News article. This will affect 110,000 employees at the Bank.

In the early industrial age businesses used to run their own boilers on their sites to produce steam to drive systems of pulley belts to drive machinery. The companies used to have teams of boiler house men, fitters and engineers to support that power infrastructure. Then came the advent of Utility provided electricity to drive machinery in the business. The old ways soon died away. We are likely to see the same in businesses across the globe as they realise they do not need to retain IT staff to support the basic office function computing.

BBVA will need to ensure its data network is up to the job of handling this change in load, but the move will have major implications for its in-house IT Support staff currently engaged in supporting Microsoft Office products.

Edit 21/02/12 Another large company Roche is making a similar move to Business Apps .

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Fire Risk Assessing

In the UK there is a requirement that a process of Fire Risk Assessment takes place in office buildings and places such as data centres where employees may be deployed. The fire risk assessment is a formal process. New criteria are being evolved to measure the competency of the Risk Assessors.  There is more detail here.

Monday 9 January 2012

Reduce your company mobile phone bill.

Many employers provide their employees with mobile phones to allow them to stay in contact when away from the desk. However one down side to this is that employees will use the mobile phone even when a perfectly good extension telephone is within easy reach. It means the cost of mobile calls are higher than they need to be.
There is a a way to reduce this problem. It is call a private mobile phone network. In its most simple form the solution takes the form of a GSM base station located in the office premises. Through a registration process it recognises the employees' mobile phones and handles the call traffic for those mobile phones within range of the private GSM hub. Here's an example and another. There is some capital cost involved to set up the service, but the savings can be substantial.

Satellite Broadband UK

For those living out in the sticks in the UK it can, in some places, be very difficult to get an Internet connection. You can plead with BT but get nowhere. Many people do not realise that you can get satellite Internet ADSL connection at a not unreasonable price. For example a 4 Meg down/1 Meg up link is available via satellite for approximately £50 a month. The up front investment is around £500 for the dish and anciliary equipment. Here's one example of a vendor providing this service. This could be an ideal solution if you have a mobile office and can locate it in a site where the satellite can be "seen."

Robust telephony

If you business depends on in-coming calls to telephones for its survival you need to consider the BCP aspects of your telephone system. If there is a major failure in your telephony switch (PABX) how will your customers call you?  Are there alternate numbers they can call or does your telephony system allow your phone numbers to be immediately diverted to an alternate switch in the event of an outage?
What happens if the cable from your local exchange becomes damaged?

BT offer solutions to these type of issues such as Dual Parenting, Dual Routing, and Route Separacy. There will be a set up and operational cost associated with these services and they may not be offered in all locations. Similar services can be provided by third party companies such as Six Degrees Live Number Service and Gematech's DDI Call Recovery service.

If your business needs call recording as part of its business process you will need to give further consideration as to how this can be achieved in a outage event. Smaller businesses may wish to consider a hosted pabx service where these issues are handled by the provider.

Friday 6 January 2012

Social Network - dangerous to employment

A recent case where an HR manager who posted his CV on the LinkedIn.com web site highlights the dangers of revealing too much personal information n the Internet. He contends that he was forced out of his job as a consequence. While there is no law saying that you must not provide your CV to other potential employers it does demonstrate a certain lack of commitment to your current empoyer. It will be interesting to to see the outcome of the industrial tribunal.
Any employee tempted to use their employer's computing facilities for personal internet activity should have a look at the capability of  spyware tools available to employers should they choose to investigate the activities of their employees. Strictly speaking employers in the UK are not allowed to use such tools unless they've previously warned the employees, but it is something easily handled by fineprint on the employment contract.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Business ICT for less than 150 GBP/Month

Our business involves a lot of international travel for the principal consultants. However as a UK company we are bound by Company Law, UK Taxation laws and of course the needs of our clients that we must maintain long term records in an easily accessible form. We depend greatly on the availability of the Internet, voice/video conferencing and telephones. We often work across time zones so access is required to our systems pretty much 24 hours a day.

With the exception of physical documents stored for tax and company law reasons we hold no paper documents on a long term basis. Occasionally we'll print a document to work on it, but essentially all records and collaboration procedures are electronic. By the nature of our business we have to be mobile and often geographically dispersed, but we also need to have good access to our computer systems at all times. We need good document management so that we have a good document trail and also ensure that everyone works from the most current version of a document. We have the facilities of a large enterprise.

If a 747 aeroplane dropped from the sky onto our offices we could be back in business within two hours or less; excepting any people squashed in our offices. We wouldn't lose any documents, our contact lists and our phone system would be intact. We'd maintain all of the design, planning, accounting and billing systems. If there was a regional power outage or a flood the impact would be the same; none at all.

How often do we test our business recovery process? We don't. Resilient distributed working is part of our daily routine. Our systems are all configured to work seamlessly if some part of the whole system is unavailable. We also have local resilience at our office in terms of Standby power generator, UPS power, resilient Internet and Wide Area Networking.

This all sounds rather expensive, but it is not. These are our typical budgetary costs per person for technology per year:

Personal computing/portable: - £400
Power:- £150
Phone (Mobile & Land line):- £400
Internet Access:- £250
Office software:- £0
Software Maintenance:- £0
Support Technician/Help Desk:- £0
Servers:- £0
Email:- £0
CRM:- £0
Cloud Services:- £300
Web Hosting:- £150
Office rental, cleaning etc:- £0
Document storage:- £0
Specialist design software:- at cost

Total annual cost: £ 1,650 to provide resilient office and technology per employee. Circa £140 per month. If you want to know more contact me. I'll be happy to discuss, for free of course.

Here's some background to one of the techniques: - Google Apps

Sunday 1 January 2012

Trading Floor Project coordination

When I wrote my book “Creating a Trading floor” back in 2006, the concept of Cloud computing was still somewhat in its infancy. Things have now changed for the better. It is now considerably more easy to electronically control the distribution of project documentation. In the book I suggested that one of the early necessities once the Trading Floor project kicks off is to create a project server where documents could be held centrally for the project team. This avoids the problem of people accessing the wrong version of documents and also prevents over-burdened emails with masses of attachments.
Think about the nature of a trading floor project team. It is transient comprised of highly skilled people. It forms and changes shape dynamically. Members are added and removed as the project progresses. While the environment has to be dynamic and flexible, but there is also the need for comprehensive formal documentation. It is generally necessary to retain archival copies of progress documents, which may at some time need to be referred to in subsequent contractual disputes/resolutions. There also needs to be collaboration activities on documents as the project progresses.
Project Team members are often geographically dispersed. They are usually expensive highly skilled individuals who have many demands on their knowledge and skills. They may be located on the project site or they may be in another part of the globe at sometime during the life of the project. Previously the only way to ensure people had easy access to documents was for large emails to be sent to all active project team members when changes occur. Some of those working documents would be held on laptop computers, desk top PCs in head office or in PCs at the site office. It is difficult to keep documents in-sync and the loss of a laptop computer or site PC can be catastrophic.
Now I would say that the project team should make use of a combination of Google Docs and Google Business Apps for simple formatted documentation and something like SugarSync to automatically keep other more complex important documents such CAD files in synchronisation between the various PCs and laptops of the project team. To achieve this it is essential that the project team establishes a good Internet connection at the site from the very early stages of the project. Initially this may have to be a public wireless connection, but it should be replaced with a high speed Internet link as soon as possible thereafter. Clear project protocols should be established as to where, or which directories, individuals should store documents requiring collaboration or long term archive. Good Internet links will help also with web based meetings e.g. GoToMeeting, VOIP, Voice & Video conferencing. Using SugarSync it is possible to keep central copies on a project server as well as in the Cloud.