Everyone seems to agree that the outgoing year 2011 was the year of the cloud. Judging by how often the word “cloud” was thrown at us by computer vendors, hosting companies, and service providers, it sounds like the greatest innovation since sliced bread. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Cloud computing is not new at all. It has been around since the days of Multics and the ARPANET, at least conceptually. It is neither an invention nor a product, but an application of existing computer technologies, no matter how many companies now try to productise it now. The fuzzy term includes everything from network storage, utility computing, virtual server hosting, to service oriented architectures, typically delivered via the Internet (i.e. the cloud). In fact, the term is so blurry, that even the vendors themselves often disagree what it means, as famously Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, before his company jumped on the bandwagon.

Pogoplug 2Most people associate the word cloud with file hosting services such as Dropbox, Windows Azure, or Apple’s iCloud. Today, I want to talk about a product that provides an alternative to these network storage services, which provides in my opinion a superior solution. It’s called Pogoplug and it is a box that comes in a flashy pink. The idea is simple enough. You connect this box with your Wifi router on one side and with your storage media on the other side, and voilà, you get networked storage, aka your own “personal cloud” which is accessible on your LAN as well as from outside via the Internet. Besides connecting the box, you have to get an account with pogoplug.com and register your device. Optionally, you can install software that makes the attached storage available on your LAN as an external mass storage device. There are also free apps for iOS and Android that that allow you to access Pogoplug-managed storage from your tablet and/or phone.

Why is this such a clever product? Well, for two reasons. First, the Pogoplug is low-cost and easy to use. Second, it provides solutions to multiple problems. Let’s start with the first. The basic Pogoplug device costs 50 USD, and the web account is free. You can plug up to four external hard disks or flash memory sticks into the four USB ports, so one could easily realise four or eight Terabyte total capacity. External hosting is expensive by comparison; for example, a 50 GB Dropbox account costs 10 USD per month; with Apple’s iCloud it’s 100 USD per year for the same size. There are cheaper alternatives, such as livedrive.com or justcloud.com, but the annual expense still exceeds the cost of a Pogoplug device. What’s the catch? The download speed via Internet is limited to the upload speed of your Internet connection, which for the average DSL user is typically lower than the access speed of an external file storage service. Filling the Pogoplug devices with data, on the other hand, is much faster, because you can access the drives locally.

Now, about the multiple solutions aspect. What I like about the Pogoplug device is that I can reuse my external backup disks as network storage. I work with redundant pairs of disks, whereas one disk is plugged into the Pogoplug at all times and the other disk is used to create backups from my computers. In the second step, I mount the Pogoplug to my Linux workstation and synchronise the online storage with the fresh backups via rsync. In addition, I use my Pogoplug as a household NAS and media server. This comes in very handy for viewing my photo library on a tablet, or for streaming audio from my music collection to my phone. As long as I stay within my house/garden’s Wifi range, the data transfer happens at Wifi speed. Streaming movies is a little trickier. Usually I download movies from the Pogoplug to the mobile device before viewing.

In summary, the product offers a miniature file server for local access via LAN/Wifi and remote access via Internet plus some streaming services. Authentication service is provided by the pogoplug.com web server. As of late, you also get 5GB free cloud storage space externally hosted by pogoplug.com, which is likewise accessible via mobile apps and can even be mounted into your local network. The pogoplug device itself consumes only 5W, less than most NAS or mini PC servers. Obviously, the power consumption increases when connected USB hard disks draw power from it, so the most energy-efficient solution is probably to use either flash memory sticks or USB-powered disks that stop spinning in idle mode. Additionally, the Pogoplug device can be deployed as a LAN print server. Those who are comfortable with Unix administration and scripting can program the Pogoplug device to do even more.

Website: www.pogoplug.com

1.2GHz ARM CPU with 256MB RAM plus 512MB Flash storage,
4 x USB2 ports, 1 x 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet port, integrated DC power supply
Supported Filesystems: NTFS, FAT32, Mac OS, Extended Journaled and non-Journaled (HFS+), EXT-2/EXT-3
Supported Browsers: Safari, Firefox 3, IE7, IE8, Chrome
Supported AV File Formats: H.264, MP4, AVI with motion JPEG, MP3

The mighty paper UI


I went shopping last weekend, and since my capacity for remembering things is slowly degrading (sigh) I often make a shopping list when I have to buy more than 500 items. Okay, maybe that's a bit exaggerated. I mean 50 items. Alright, alright, still exaggerated. I begin to consider a shopping list when I have more than 5 items to buy and I definitely make one if there are more than 10. So, I'm on my way with my shopping list, which -befitting my rank as a software engineer- was stored on my smart phone. Just a few years ago, this might have been considered geeky or eccentric, but nowadays smart phones are so common that it hardly catches anyone's eye. I frequently take notes on my phone, for the simple reason that I have it always with me, and it's often closer than a notepad or a diary.

So there I was in the supermarket, having to check the contents of the shopping cart against my list. No problem, of course. Take phone out pocket and switch the display on to show the main screen (2 sec). Tap on main screen to show launcher window (1 sec). Drag launcher window contents with finger to scroll to memo pad application (1 sec). Open memo pad application (1 sec). Locate shopping list on application menu and tap on it (1 sec). Mind you, that's an optimistic estimation, because something might run more sluggishly than usual. For example, the phone might have discovered a Wifi hotspot and thinks it's a great idea to tell me about it. But I don't want Wifi. Now, six seconds doesn't sound too bad, until I noticed the guy next to me. He had a shopping list, too, one written on paper. He took it out of his shirt pocket in less than a second. Swish. Just like that. Han Dynasty technology beating the smart phone.

That's when I realised, there are situations when you can't trump a paper based UI.

Computing 2010

pc.jpgToday, I came across an interesting article in the Forbes Magazine entitled “Computing 2010″. The interesting part is that this article was written ten years ago. The author, Kip Crosby, imagined what computers would look like in 2010: optical circuits instead of silicon, with a CPU running at 100 GHz, holographic mass storage offering several TB capacity, 256 GB optoelectronic RAM, biometric authentication, voice control, completely wireless and shaped like a frisbee. Whew! Looks like Kip was just a tad too optimistic. Optoelectronics hasn’t caught on and most computers are still boxy rather than frisbee-ish. In fact, todays’s PC looks pretty much like that of 2000, except that its capacity has increased roughly following Moore’s law. The only accurate prediction is about mass storage capacity, although that didn’t require optical technology.

Personally, I’ve begun the new computing year with a major upgrade, though still far away from Kip’s 2010 vision. I have replaced my 32-bit Windows OS with a 64-bit Linux OS, doubled RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB and added another external USB hard drive for backups. The Ubuntu installation turned out a little difficult, because Linux did not want to cooperate with the BIOS RAID-1 configuration, so I had to switch to SATA mode and wipe out the Windows installation. The rest was easy, however. I used to worry about not being able to make my 3G USB modem work with Linux, but our maid has solved this problem for me. She obliterated the device by putting it into the washing machine. Can’t really blame her for that. I probably shouldn’t have carried the modem in the pockets of my shorts.

Back to the topic. What are the computing trends in 2010? Just off the top of my head: cloud computing is becoming a mainstream technology (or perhaps a mainstream buzz; time will tell). Along with that, virtualisation is now widely used. Supercomputers have broken the petaflop mark and now operate in the range of large clouds (> 1 PFlop). CRT monitors are quickly becoming relics of a past epoch. Single-core CPUs are headed the same way. Functional programming languages are beginning to catch on. 64-bit hardware and software are overtaking 32-bit systems in mainstream IT. Java 7 is announced for 2010. It surely looks like an interesting year.

Pocket PCs Suck!

Pocket PCs suck! Well, they do at least suck when they don’t work as they are supposed to. …which is pretty often in my experience. To be fair, I must say that Pocket PCs are great as long as they do work. Since a Pocket PC is like a miniature computer, it offers a functional range and programmability that surpasses almost any other mobile device. Unfortunately, this leads to complexity, and complexity leads to bugs which in turn leads to malfunctioning devices. I’ve been using Pocket PCs for two years now and have developed sort of a love-hate relationship. Probably the culprit is the Windows Mobile operating system. Windows Mobile, although already in version 6, evokes bad memories of the buggy Microsoft operating systems of the nineties. Only that this isn’t the nineties. After ten or fifteen years of consumer mobile phones, we have come to expect mobile devices to work flawlessly. In fact, I am relying on my Pocket PC for many day-today tasks. I use it as a phone, alarm clock, notepad, camera, phone book, and mp3 player and more. My HP iPaq Business Navigator also has an assisted GPS, but I came to see the latter as a toy function. Due to usability issues I hardly bother to fiddle with it.

However, the question I am asking myself now is – isn’t this device just an expensive toy? Where is the robustness that should come with a “business” device . I have put in a good deal of time just to keep my pocket PC working. My HP PPC has seen the service shop twice, once because of a faulty memory chip, and another time because it didn’t boot anymore until the shop installed a firmware upgrade. In addition to that, I have spent a fair number of hours with configuration and trouble-shooting because one or another function was broken. Once I get a working configuration with all the software installed, I use Spb Backup to create a complete backup of the system. Spb Backup is a real life-saver. It backs up all configuration data, user data, applications and system data. Should the device give up its ghost or display odd behaviour (believe me, every Pocket PC will do that at some point), I can perform a factory reset and restore the backup to recreate the former status of the device easily. But even with this tool, the amount of maintenance required seems a little excessive. A gadget that carries the name “Business Navigator” should be expected to work like a business device, namely reliably. Unfortunately, I can’t say that for the HP iPaq and neither for the other Pocket PCs I’ve owned and used. As previously mentioned, I am not blaming the hardware manufacturers. The OS seems to be the crux.

Real business users would probably be better off with a smartphone that requires less messing around. A Pocket PC is more suited to -shall I put it this way- the technically inclined person.

GPS Usability

This is an addendum to the previous blog entry. The GPS functionality is less useful than I expected. Today, I went with my wife to pick up our daughter from school. After leaving the school, we encountered a detour and promptly got lost in the maze of Chiang Mai’s rural roads. “No problem,” I thought, booting up the GPS navigation software on my pocket PC. But there was a problem. In order to calculate the position, the GPS requires several satellite signals. I think the minimum is four. The process usually takes 30-60 seconds. Today, the device appeared to have problems getting multiple satellite signals. When it had acquired two it lost one, then it acquired another, lost another, then all signals were lost at once, then it acquired a new one, and so the game went on, until I gave up after a few minutes. We were back on track even before the GPS could locate us. I suppose, I will put the old low-tech magnetic compass back into the car. It served me well in the past.