Avoiding the Chasm

November 30, 2010

A Very Simple Solution to the iPhone/iPod 4.2.1 Update “No Content” Problem.

Filed under: Technology — vextasy @ 11:25 am

If, like me, you have recently updated your iPhone to iOS 4.2.1 and have found that all of your iPod content has disappeared then you could follow the suggested method that involves re-syncing with itunes. However, if you are using your iPhone or iPod away from its iTunes connection then you might like to try this alternative solution that I found worked for me. I have only performed this on an iPhone but I suspect it will also work on an iPod.

The symptoms are that when you fire up the iPod app it displays the message “No Content”. Even if you purchase new content from the iTunes app nothing appears within the iPod app.

The solution that worked for me was:

1. Run the Setting app and select: General -> International -> Language and choose Francais.
2. Click Done. Don’t panic, but wait for the French “Changing Language” message to disappear and for the home screen to be redisplayed.
3. Start the iPod app and wait until its initial screen shows.
4. Return to the home screen and run the Settings app again (labeled in French as Reglages) and select: General -> International -> Langue and choose English.
5. Now fire up the iPod app and you should see that all of your content has been restored.

January 24, 2010

Affordable Safe Backup

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 12:18 am

S352U2RER.smallChoosing the right backup system to use at work or home is a difficult, and frankly uninspiring use of time, and one which almost always results in making undesirable compromises. There always seem to be far too many options and the good solutions come with a price tag that almost matches the cost of the system they were designed to support. A good backup system should satisfy, at least, the following requirements:

  • It should be affordable.
  • Operation should be reasonably well automated.
  • It should be easy to restore to one of several points in time.
  • There should be some redundancy.
  • It should be simple to store some backups offsite.
  • Media should be encrypted for security.

The system described here uses an affordable drive enclosure to host two of three disk drives in a scheme that gives both disk mirroring and offsite storage all for a very affordable price of, roughly, £260. Of the three disk drives, two stay in the enclosure and the third is kept offsite and periodically exchanged with one of the two in the enclosure. Each disk drive is mounted in a drive tray (a one-off operation which requires nothing more than the use of a Philips screwdriver) which allows it to be easily inserted and removed from the enclosure. The enclosure is connected to a USB port on a computer and looks, to the computer, like a single large disk. I use 1TB capacity disks which allows me to securely store approximately 1,000 GB of data which is a lot even for a small business.

Operation

The drive enclosure is populated with two of the three SATA disk drives and attached to a computer (Mac, Windows or Unix) through a USB connection. A DIP switch configuration on the rear of the enclosure can be used to choose from a number of different configurations allowing the two drives to appear as either one big drive, two independent drives or a single drive using RAID 1 mirroring for increased protection against disk failure. This backup scheme uses the latter configuration, RAID 1, which employs disk mirroring in which the enclosure maintains an exact copy of its first disk on the second disk so that if either disk fails the remaining disk can continue operation without loss of data. If a failure occurs, the failed drive can be replace with a good drive and the system will automatically mirror the data to the new drive without any downtime. From the computer, the enclosure appears as a single USB (external) drive.

SyncBackProThe second disk can be removed at any point and replaced with another which will be automatically mirrored with the contents of the first disk. The process of mirroring a 1TB disk takes about 3 or 4 hours but during this period the drive can be used normally. A green LED above a drive indicates that it is functioning normally, a flashing amber LED indicates that the drive is in the process of being mirrored and a red LED is indicative of a hardware fault with the drive.

Backup software on the computer populates the USB drive as it would any externally attached drive. I use the excellent SyncBackPro for Windows to pull files in from other machines on the network and write it to the drive but any archiving software could be used as appropriate for the platform.

Archival Storage

Some operating systems provide a mechanism for maintaining historical copies of your files within the file system. Windows does this with what it calls Previous Versions, and  on Mac OS X similar functionality can be achieved by using Time Machine. Both these mechanisms enable fuller use of the storage space on the drive by keeping old versions of all files, even files that have been deleted since the last backup, for as long as space remains on the backup disk. Once the disk fills up these systems will automatically begin to prune back the oldest versions of files, keeping only as many old files as the disk can hold. Both of these mechanisms, Previous Versions and TimeMachine, will allow you to view the files in any backed up folder on your system as they were at several points in the past, typically at daily or more frequent intervals.

Redundancy and Offsite Storage

The enclosure keeps two drives in sync automatically so that should one of the drives in the enclosure fail the other one will continue providing read and write functionality without any interruption of service. This gives one form of redundancy, but by swapping the mirrored disk with a spare one on a regular, say daily, basis you get to maintain as many backup copies of your complete data as you feel comfortable with. It is easy to manage a small pool of spare disks which can be used in rotation. If we then keep one or more of these disks at a different location to the enclosure we have an offsite backup.

Very cheap USB caddies can be purchased which will hold a single SATA disk drive. These can be used in an emergency to mount any of the disks on a computer if the enclosure fails or if you need to access the data that is on one of the drives from a different computer or location.

Encryption

truecrypt If securing the content of your backup data is important then the free open source TrueCrypt is an excellent tool. TrueCrypt provides on-the-fly encryption of an entire disk which means that data is encrypted or decrypted just before it is saved or loaded from the disk. The operation works transparently, encrypting the entire disk volume without any user intervention. Data is copied to or read from the encrypted disk exactly as it would be to or from an unencrypted disk. No data can be read from the disk until the correct password has been provided so if one of your disks is lost or stolen you can be confident that its contents will remain safe. The documentation on the TrueCrypt web site provides a step by step guide to installing and using TrueCrypt to protect a USB drive.

The decision to encrypt is an optional one and can be delayed until a later date. TrueCrypt software is such a good tool that I would recommend experimenting with it even if you don’t decide to use it to encrypt your backups. One of the modes of operation of TrueCrypt allows you to create an encrypted file on your normal file system which can then be mounted by TrueCrypt as a drive (or volume) on your computer. To the computer this looks like a normal external disk but has the advantage that all of the files that you write to the disk are securely encrypted and cannot be read without providing the correct password. TrueCrypt is software that I would be prepared to pay quite a lot of money for but it is open source and free.

Cost

The system I describe here costs roughly £260 (including the backup media) and provides 1TB of always available RAID and offsite backed storage – this makes it a very competitively priced solution for a small business or home worker.

I purchased the enclosure and extra drive trays from Dabs.com but the enclosure is also available from Amazon. The hard drives can be purchased from anywhere but should all be of the same capacity – Good 1TB drives can currently be found for about £60. The individual component costs for the whole system were:

Component Price
1 x USB Dual Removable SATA RAID External Hard Drive Enclosure £70
1 x Extra Hot Swap Hard Drive Tray £10
3 x 1TB Internal SATA Disk Drives £60 each
TrueCrypt Open Source Disk Encryption Software £free

With a total component cost of about £260, the benefits of this disk-based system over our old tape based solution are enormous not just in price but in flexibility and features. In short, it is a solution that I would recommend.

October 17, 2009

Google Takes Another Bite

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 5:58 pm

Quietly, and almost overnight, Google have moved into another market. At the time of writing there is not yet any announcement on the Official Google Blog but it looks as though Google have begun the process of unveiling maps based on their own data.

The Google Maps product that we have all grown so used to was driven by data from Tele Atlas, a Netherlands-based company, as witnessed by the map data copyright notice that appears in the bottom right hand corner of a Google Map.

TeleAtlasCopyright But now Google Maps, in the US at least, have started to replace these with Google map data copyright notices. We should probably expect to see these changes rolled out elsewhere in due course too.

GoogleCopyright Although Google have not revealed the sources of their map data, the suggestion is that it is a by-product of the work they did in building Google Street View with additional data coming from other public domain sources, such as the rather poor quality TIGER data in the US. Interestingly, Google did blog about the introduction of the Street View Trike in the UK and how they are being used to reach those parts that they cannot easily reach by car – they even invite readers to suggest locations that are poorly mapped.

The other big map data provider is NAVTEQ who provide data for roughly 85% of the world’s in-car navigation systems as well as for portable GPS devices from Garmin and Magellan and for Bing, MultiMap and Yahoo! online maps. Last year NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia and Tele Atlas was acquired by TomTom. I would imagine that both NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas are now feeling rather relieved.

Map Quality

One of the first indications of a change was that users had noticed a sudden degradation in the quality of Google’s maps. Roads that used to be mapped no longer appeared on the maps and roads appeared where buildings had recently been built. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the quality seems higher in those areas that have been visited by a Street View car and lower elsewhere. Google has started to aggregate data from a number of public sources and to combine them with their own map data, in particular, US land parcel data is now also visible on the maps. Some users have observed that buildings which had previously been unlabelled, for security reasons, are now clearly labelled.

Data Liberation

Google have introduced a link at the bottom of the map inviting users to report problems that they spot. They must be aware that the map quality is not as good as it used to be but they must also be confident that any failings can be rectified by their enormous user community. Perhaps this early lack of quality is the main reason why the whole process has been kept quiet. Rather hypocritically, for a company that started the Data Liberation Front whose mission statement says:

“Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google’s products.
Our team’s goal is to make it easier for them to move data in and out.”
,

Google don’t provide a mechanism for users to retrieve the map corrections that they have submitted to Google. I wonder if that will change.

Good News for Mobile Users

All of this is probably very good news for users of mobile map devices. The licence that Google had previously signed with Tele Atlas precluded the use of the map data for turn-by-turn applications. Such navigation applications are often expensive because of the extra cost of purchasing such a licence which has to be passed on to the end user. Google will now be able to move forward without being tethered by such restrictions.

An advantage to Google of owning their own data is that a mobile Google Maps application will now be able to pre-download map data to the device, enabling the maps to work where either there is no reliable mobile signal (such as in the Lake District in the UK) or in places where the cost of downloading the map data over the mobile network could be prohibitively expensive (such as when travelling abroad with a mobile data plan). Currently, on the iPhone at least, this kind of offline mapping is only available at no cost to applications that use the excellent OpenStreetMap data, such as the OffMaps application.

The value to Google of the flow back of data from mobile devices that are using Google Maps is enormous. Feedback from Android phones and other devices that allow background processing will almost certainly be used to enhance map data. As an example, consider a GPS enabled mobile device travelling in a vehicle along the road network. The Google Maps application running on the device will be able to feed back to Google not only information about the likely locations of new and unmapped roads, about one-way streets and permanent and temporary speed restrictions, but also information about the average speed at any given time of day on any road. This kind of information can be used to provide accurate and optimum routing. And once you know all of this information, it is not difficult to see how, by comparing it with new real-time data, it can be used to spot traffic incidents and hotspots as they occur. Nokia and TomTom already have agreements in place with mobile phone providers that allow such data to feed back but Google will be cutting out the middle man.

OpenStreetMap

If you haven’t already contributed towards the construction of the map of your own town or city you should really take a look at OpenStreetMap and contribute at least a little of your time to enhance the excellent free and open map of the world whose data belongs to everyone.

OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of the mapping world. As other Wikipedia-like sites prove there is really only room for one such successful system at a time (remember Google Knol, Citizendium, and the late Encarta). Both Knol and Citizendium still exist, but how many times a year do you refer to them? The ease with which ordinary people can contribute towards the construction of accurate maps of the world and the effects of such crowd sourcing is evident in the surprisingly high quality of the OpenStreetMap maps. It is still a work in progress and some parts of the world are better covered than others. But at the current rate of improvement it has been estimated that within a year or two, OpenStreetMap will also contain enough good quality routing data to start to compete with the commercial offerings from Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ.

OpenStreetMap is possibly already the biggest threat to Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ but now that Google has entered the mapping market other large companies may be persuaded to lend their support to OpenStreetMap. Yahoo has already allowed OpenStreetMap to use their aerial imagery for the purposes of tracing map features. What if Microsoft or Apple were to get involved? It is likely that within a 12 to 24 month time span Microsoft may well re-enter the mobile market with a competitive operating system. It seems unlikely, however, that they will be happy to display the Google logo on their maps.

With feedback from mobile applications and the input of ordinary users OpenStreetMap could well be the map data source of the future. But there is clearly going to be a lot of competition from all of the data providers to gather a good deal of accurate and useful data and to offer it at a reasonable price. In the meantime, for those of us who are mobile map users, I think we are in for a good time.

October 8, 2009

Satellite Above – I Watched it for a Little While

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 9:24 pm

Orbitron - Satellite Tracking System

A moving light in the sky is guaranteed to catch my attention. If it is slow moving and flashing then I know that it is likely to be an aircraft. If it shoots across the sky in an instant then I know it to be a meteor or shooting star. If it is fixed then I conclude that it is a star or a planet. But what if it is none of these? What if it is bright orange and moves across the sky slowly over a period of thirty seconds or so?

I asked myself that very question recently as I watched in amazement as an object that looked to me like a distant ball of fire passed silently and slowly from north-west to south-east across the clear evening sky. My initial thoughts were that I had just seen my first fireball but I knew that to be very unlikely and, besides, I was sure that fireballs were associated with freak weather conditions and on this night everything was still.

The object, whatever it was, appeared to be some distance off and moved across the sky with a speed that I readily associated with that of orbiting satellites which I had seen many times before. But these had always been white in colour and this one was a distant flaming red.

I wondered if it would be easy to check whether any satellites had passed overhead and so turned to the Internet for a solution. I came across a number of great resources which provided more than enough information to solve the mystery.

The first was a free piece of software by Sebastian Stoff called the Orbitron Satellite Tracking System which gives graphical and tabular information about the position of satellites and their visibility at a given time and place. The Orbitron software suggested that what I may have seen was a satellite which goes by the name of Iridium 43, one of a family of about seventy such satellites that provide communication services and orbit the earth from pole to pole at a height of about 500 miles and at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour.

The Iridium satellites made the news back in February of this year when one of them, Iridium 33, collided with a retired Russian satellite and with a combined impact speed of 26,000 miles per hours both were destroyed leaving thousands of pieces of space debris to fall back to earth over the following days. The Russian satellite had been uncontrolled since, at least, 1995 but the authorities had predicted that the two satellites should have missed each other by about half a kilometre – they were clearly wrong.

Iridium satellites are known to give rise to an interesting phenomenon – the Iridium Flare. The satellites are equipped with three highly reflective door sized antenna made of silver-coated Teflon on polished aluminium  and occasionally one of these will pick up light from the sun and reflect it down onto the earth’s surface generating an illuminated spot on the earth about 6 miles across. To an observer on the surface of the earth the satellite appears as if from nowhere as a faint object that slowly increases in brightness to a maximum and then just as quickly dims until it is no longer visible, with the whole show lasting no longer than, perhaps, thirty seconds. A simulation is shown here. The satellite that I saw appeared a rich flaming red in colour but I put that down to atmospheric conditions and its effect on the light as it was reflected from the satellite down to earth.

A really excellent web site that makes it easy to determine when and where to look out for satellites that are likely to be visible to the naked eye is Heavens Above. Start by declaring your location and follow links from the main page to get predictions for when Iridium flares, the International Space Station or other such objects will be visible in your area. The site also displays charts showing you where in the sky these objects will appear.

If you like to see a more earth-based and dynamic view of how any given satellite is orbiting then this real time satellite tracking web site has a mashup showing the live movement of selected satellites superimposed over the familiar Google Maps background. You can combine this view with an Iridium flare  prediction from the Heavens Above web site to get a Google Maps view of the expected track of a visible satellite too.

It is all a little geeky, but I find it reassuring to be able to get an explanation for such phenomena.

September 15, 2009

The Right Tool for the Job: Comparing GPS Devices

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 10:11 pm

I have just walked the first 100 miles of the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk; the section between St. Bees and Reeth in Swaledale. Before setting off I was keen to ensure that, as well as the obvious set of guides, maps and compass, I had a good GPS device to help with navigation when visibility got poor. I’ve been caught out in dense fog on a high fell in the Lake District and I know how difficult it can be to find the right route down in such conditions.

I already own two GPS devices: an iPhone and a TomTom GO 730 both of which are excellent devices and purchases that I am entirely happy with. I have seen a lot of discussion in online forums about the merits of various handheld GPS units and was aware of more and more software for the iPhone that made use of its built in GPS hardware. I wanted to know if either of my existing two devices could be usefully used on a trek or if I needed to invest in yet another gadget.

After much research I purchased a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and I was very very happy with it. I carry an iPhone all the time but I wouldn’t even bother switching it on if I had the Garmin with me. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its uses. For example, RouteBuddy have released a series of Ordnance Survey 1:25000 scale maps of the UK National Parks which are stored on the iPhone and so can be viewed even when out of network contact. Their free iPhone application `Atlas’ can also be used to view the free OpenStreetMap map of the UK (and the rest of the world) and of course there are the excellent iPhone Google Maps and Google Earth applications. All of these are good for browsing in the pub or at home.

There are, however, a couple of big problems with the iPhone when used outdoors. Firstly, the battery life is appalling. With location services enabled to allow a GPS fix I estimate that you would be lucky to get more than two or three hours of continuous service from it, possibly less. A separate battery pack might extend that by a factor of two or three but you’d still be worrying about your chances of lasting for a good day’s walk and you would have the additional inconvenience of having to lug the weight of the battery pack. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously as far as safety is concerned, you will find that the iPhone is useless in the wet because when you are wet you won’t be able to operate the touchscreen. I discovered this inconvenience on a particularly wet day when I needed to call a Youth Hostel to book a bed for the night.

The map that comes with the Garmin is hopelessly basic, but if you download the free contour maps from the Scottish Mountaineering Society website and install (either manually or from the Internet) some routes and waypoints or POIs onto the Garmin it is an excellent hiking tool. Oh and it’s waterproof to 1 metre depth of water, its GPS is considerably more accurate than an iPhone and having it on continuously for 100 miles of walking it only got through 4 AA batteries. I’d rather have the combination of a paper map in a waterproof case (or one of those waterproof laminated ones) and a handheld GPS than risk having my map in the GPS. At least then if the device fails you still have a map (and, it goes without saying, a compass). The Garmin will give you a very accurate grid reference to read off on the map.

My advice is stick to the right tool for the job: iPhone for indoors, Garmin GPS60CSX for outdoor on foot and a TomTom (or similar) for the car. I don’t think any of the devices work well in the wrong environment.

February 10, 2009

A Solution to the "iTunes has stopped working" Problem on Vista

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 9:16 am

iTunesAppleAbout a week ago iTunes began crashing each time I synced my iPhone. Initially it happened right at the end of the sync and so, although irritating,  it was possible to ignore it while simultaneously searching for a solution online. The problem started immediately after I had installed the new version of Google Earth and so my initial thoughts were that it was in some way related to a change that had been made as part of that install. But uninstalling Google Earth had no effect.

The nature of the problem was that the more I ignored it the further forward in the sync process it got until eventually iTunes would crash immediately on recognising the iPhone and display the "iTunes has stopped working" popup.

The Apple support forums were of little help. They seemed to contain little in the way of advice from Apple and a lot in the way of posts from similar and confused iTunes users who were experiencing similar problems to me.

One apparently useful suggestion from the forums was that the issue might be resolved by uninstalling QuickTime and then re-installing iTunes+QuickTime together. This had no effect either.

Following another line of hope I performed a restore on the iPhone which reloads the firmware and attempts to recover the iPhone settings from the most recent backup. Again, no solution.

After a number of frustrating evenings of tinkering I stumbled on the solution that worked for me: From the iTunes store menu choose "Deauthorize Computer…" followed by "Authorize Computer…". I have no idea why that solved the problem but I can now sync again and if you have stumbled upon this post because you have the same problem I really hope it works for you.

I can’t understand how Apple can produce such a wonderful user experience on the iPhone and Apple TV and such an awful one on iTunes and the Apple support web site.

April 17, 2008

Broadband Network Usage Monitoring and Measurement Tools

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — vextasy @ 8:10 pm

If you have found that your ISP has been restricting your broadband bandwidth the obvious question you will ask your ISP is why? If you ask that question the answer you are likely to get is that you have been using the “broadband service inappropriately”. You might also be told that you have exceeded your usage allowance but if you, like me, are on an unlimited contract you are unlikely to be told what the upper usage limit is. The reason you won’t be told the actual value of the upper limit is that it is likely to be more complicated than a simple figure and the reason that this is the case is because the ISPs are principally interested in avoiding router congestion at peak times. At off-peak times, such as in the early hours of the morning and during the working day, it makes little difference to an ISP if the capacity of their network is 25%, 50% or 75% used, they still have the same equipment costs and other overheads. But once the network reaches capacity, and routers are forced to drop packets, then customers start to notice and the ISP begins to get a bad name. For this reason most ISPs have, quietly, begun to apply traffic shaping at peak times.

Traffic shaping involves restricting the bandwidth of `heavy usage’ customers in such a way as to prevent them from interfering with the network experience enjoyed by `lighter usage’ customers. Unfortunately it looks like we are in for a lot more of this as network demand grows. The popularity of the Internet as a medium for watching media has rocketed in recent months and looks to continue to grow as more and more people switch their viewing habits from the more traditional broadcast medium to Internet based technologies. In the UK, the BBC iPlayer alone has been responsible for tremendous changes in network usage.

I recently found myself in the position of having determined from my ISP that I was being traffic shaped. Unfortunately, my router provided me with little help in identifying the volumes of data that were passing through my broadband connection each month but my ISP furnished me with figures which seemed to be considerably higher than I would have expected. Finding myself in a very weak position I decided to rearrange my home network to allow me to gain a better understanding of my broadband usage.

My broadband is supplied by BT on an unlimited tariff and I use the BT supplied broadband router (2-Wire 1800) which hosts two wired Ethernet connections, one to a PC and one to a network attached storage device, and a number of wireless connections to PCs or laptops. There are nine devices in total but typically a maximum of 4 might be actively using the broadband line at any one time, and by active I usually mean browsing web pages. Living reasonably close to our exchange we can manage to achieve a download speed of about 6.3 Mb/sec and even with the bandwidth restriction we still reach this speed outside of peak times.

WallWatcher

WallWatcher

The problem with having a wired network is that the only device that can really determine how much traffic is flowing is the broadband router as everything else talks directly to it and it funnels data into and out of the ADSL line. I attempted to get my existing router to log traffic information to a PC so that I could take a close look at what was travelling up and down the external line.

There are many different logging analysers available but the one I chose to use was WallWatcher a free tool with support for a large number of routers.

Tomato

Unfortunately I found that I couldn’t get WallWatcher to correctly recognise the format of the packet logs coming from my model of 2-Wire router. Linksys_WRT54GLIn my case the solution was to make use of a spare wireless router that I had which was not being usefully employed, a Linksys WRT54GL. This variant of the WRT54 family of router runs Linux and can be easily upgraded to run an alternative piece of firmware. I wanted to concentrate my network devices on the Linksys router and then run a single connection from the Linksys router to an Ethernet port on the back of the 2-Wire broadband router. I also wanted to make use of the fine bandwidth reporting available from the Tomato firmware which this router can be upgraded to run. The process of upgrading the router took about 10 minutes as it can be done from a menu option within the native Linksys firmware. Once Tomato was up and running on the Linksys it was easy to configure it to provide a good quality wireless network that replaced the old 2-Wire network and as an added benefit was also faster.

I configured the Linksys to store its bandwidth logs on a network Windows share and to forward its packet logs to WallWatcher as before and the results bandwidth-24hrswere immediately interesting. Tomato hosts a number of web pages that show bandwidth over varying periods of time. I could see straight away that the download bandwidth on the WAN port was considerably higher than I would have expected and at quite a sustained value (see the image on the right). The graph shows consistently high volume of download overnight and then a period of very low activity in the morning when all of the PCs were switched off followed by high usage again from about 2pm when they were restarted. Tomato also hosts a real time bandwidth display. Using these displays combined with WallWatcher it was easy to identify the PC responsible for the heavy usage and by examining the addresses of the remote end-points shown by WallWatcher it was also easy to determine the offending program.

TV Tonictvtonic_realtime

In my case, the program generating the traffic was the TV Tonic RSS service, a program responsible for downloading video podcasts from the Internet. I hadn’t realised that the program was still active as I had not made use of the client for a number of weeks. Incidentally, the TV Tonic client runs as an add-on to Windows Media Center (under Vista) and is quite a nice addition. Had I looked a little more closely at its configuration I would have noticed that not only did it have an option to limit the download bandwidth but also it had a download scheduler to control the time of day that it be allowed to download at all (both of these options would be nice to see adopted by the BBC iPlayer). I’m not quite sure why TV Tonic was downloading such large amounts of data but, not wishing to experience another month of bandwidth restriction, I immediately disabled the TV Tonic service and the Tomato real time monitor showed the corresponding reduction in bandwidth usage.

BBC iPlayerwallreviewer-out

Even after disabling the TV Tonic RSS service there still seemed to be a lot of network activity from my PC although I wasn’t running any obvious client program. A closer look at the WallWatcher log display showed a large number of incoming and outgoing UDP packets wallwatcher-iplayerbeing sent to external machines. WallWatcher comes with a charting tool called WallReviewer which gives a useful interactive graphical picture of incoming and outgoing traffic information over a given period of time. The WallReviewer chart of “Outbound Leaks by Remote Names” showed a large number of packets being sent to the machines iplaykdms82.telhc.bbc.co.uk and iplaykdms6.telhc.bbc.co.uk. The names of these remote sites suggested the BBC iPlayer might be responsible but the application wasn’t running and the option “allow programmes to be shared when you exit download manager” was not ticked in the iPlayer configuration dialogue so I had assumed that there ought to be no networking activity from the iPlayer Kontiki-based software. I found that if I disabled the Windows service named “KService” (which runs the BBC iPlayer program “C:\Program Files\Kontiki\KService.exe”) then all of this network activity stopped immediately. From the WallWatcher display it was clear to see that these packets were being sent about every 2 to 4 seconds but WallWatcher is not able to give any indication of the size of the packets.

Wireshark

To get a better indication of packet sizes a protocol analyzer is required. The “old faithful” in this area used to be called Ethereal but development on Ethereal has now been moved to Wireshark. Wireshark is simple to install and can be used on many platforms. It is also free and licensed under the GNU General Public License. There is a lot more to Wireshark that the casual user is ever likely to need and a basic knowledge of networking protocols and terminology helps but there is plenty of documentation.wireshark-iplayer

Running Wireshark on my PC confirmed that data packets were being sent to the BBC domain every two to four seconds but also showed that the packet sizes were small, 16 bytes of payload which by the time they have been wrapped in the UDP and IP packets amount to a 58 byte Ethernet frame. I find that having disabled the KService service I am unable to start up the BBC iPlayer but as soon as I re-enable the service the iPlayer functions as normal.

Conclusion

Having made these networking changes I am now in a much better position to know exactly how much traffic is being downloaded (or uploaded) over my broadband line and also able to detect this traffic early on to avoid triggering any ISP penalties. The tools required to monitor bandwidth are not expensive (in fact they are free) and are easily configured. I think that my ISP should have been able to give me the information that I needed to monitor and control my bandwidth – it feels a little like having been sold a car which has no fuel gauge.

One lesson that can be learnt from all of this is that it is becoming more and more important for anyone with a reasonable grasp of networking to take matters into their own hands to monitor their own network usage. I don’t see the ISPs relaxing their grip on our usage patterns in the short term, at least not until their own issues of congestion have been addressed. So by tightening up on wasted bandwidth we should be left with more to do the things that we really want to use it for.

April 13, 2008

Fair Use for BT Unlimited Broadband Traffic Shaping

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — vextasy @ 8:27 am

gn_logoHave you ever noticed large variations in your broadband performance? If so, there are a number of factors you might want to check before putting it down to bad luck. It may be that you, like me, are having your download bandwidth silently restricted by your ISP.

My broadband is supplied by BT and known as BT Business Broadband Share, I’ve been a BT customer for a number of years now and I think the equivalent (and, I notice, somewhat cheaper) current package is known as BT Business Total Broadband – Option 3. Both packages are advertised with the term ‘unlimited usage’ and both refer you, in the small print, to BT’s fair use policy.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a heavy user of broadband. I think I may have purchased and downloaded a dozen music files from the Internet, in my life, and I have used the BBC iPlayer to download a similar number of TV programmes, although I was careful to tick the little box that prevented the iPlayer from re-sharing those files after I had finished watching them. I download, perhaps, 6 large DVD size images from Microsoft’s MSDN subscriber site a year as part of my developer network subscription. I connect to the office with a VPN connection to collect email and occasionally use remote desktop or VNC to connect to one of several remote servers to perform evening or weekend maintenance. Other than that, I browse the web and listen again to a repeat of a Radio 4 audio programme on average about once a month. None of these things are particularly expensive in terms of bandwidth.

We are only a short distance from our local exchange and so usually comfortably achieve download bandwidth figures of over 6M bits/sec, but recently I had noticed much longer delays in displaying web pages from all sources and interrupted video streaming. We have a number of other PCs in the house on our wireless LAN and they were all experiencing similar problems so I checked the router (a BT supplied 2-Wire 1800) and noted that its broadband monitor showed low download and upload demand. This made me suspicious that there was a problem with the wireless network itself and so I checked the various settings, rebooted PCs and restarted the router and all of this made no difference at all to the download performance. I even chose to accept the firmware upgrade that the router was offering me in the hope that it might fix the problem but, rather ironically, the only visible difference I could detect was that the router’s nice bandwidth monitoring page has now been removed which means that I no longer have any indication of the upload or download bandwidth in use at any given point in time.

Noting that the download bandwidth was low, and knowing that our line normally performs well, I assumed then that the problem might be congestion at the exchange. There are good congestion checking tools at nildram and plusnet and plenty of information about broadband exchanges at samknows.com. These resources all suggested that my local exchange had no congestion issue.

Puzzled, I thought I’d monitor the bandwidth and see if I could determine a pattern. I initially suspected some form of interference from, say, a poor electrical connection or a fluorescent light, both of which can have this effect on broadband speeds, or so I had read.

You can check you broadband bandwidth with the excellent speed checker at speedtest.net which allows you to maintain a nice record of the measurements you have taken over a period of time or the less impressive BT offering at speedtester.bt.com which I found had to be run with administrative privileges on my Vista system but which does additionally provide you with what BT call your IP profile. There is an excellent description of this IP Profile at kitz.co.uk and a wealth of background information about ADSL too.

According to speedtester.bt.com my IP profile was 6.5Mbits/sec which was what I had expected:

IP profile for your line is - 6500 kbps
DSL connection rate: 448 kbps(UP-STREAM)  7616 kbps(DOWN-STREAM)
Actual IP throughput achieved during the test was - 2569 kbps

But depending on the time of day that I ran the test the IP throughput would vary from the expected 6340 kbps to as low as 379 kbps in the evening, rising through 3788 kbps after 11pm back to full speed after midnight and during the daytime. I saw this pattern repeat itself over a number of days.

Armed with this information I began to become suspicious that my line was being traffic shaped in some way. I called BT Business Broadband support and the nice lady there confirmed that my number was being restricted but she seemed surprised that I had not received an email alerting me to this. Broadband support said they were unable to give me any more information other than to say that it was due to excessive usage and gave me a phone number to ring to investigate further. That number turned out to be for reporting security breaches but they, in turn, gave me the email address: liteusage@btbroadbandoffice.com to which issues regarding traffic shaping and bandwidth restriction can be addressed.

I understood from the phone conversation that it was BT’s policy to review these restrictions at the billing points and that the restrictions could be gradually reduced if not completely removed when the excessive usage ceased. This meant that I should expect restrictions to be in place for several more weeks until BT saw fit to restore my service.

I emailed a request asking if they could help me to:

  1. Understand why the restriction has been applied .
  2. Help me get it released as soon as possible as it is interfering
    with my business use of this line.
  3. Give me an idea of the volume (or nature) of downloads that must have
    been present to have this restriction applied so that I can ensure
    it doesn’t happen again.

and the reply I got back said:

From the description you have given it appears that you are being
traffic shaped under the terms of our Fair Usage Policy, this is
why your connection is slow between 5pm and midnight.

and then followed this up with the surprising statement:

I am sorry but we cannot lift this restriction for you as our suppliers implement these measures.

Neither of these was particularly helpful or acceptable so I thought I’d better have a closer look at the fair use policy to see what I had done wrong and that is where the confusion really begins. The fair use policy doesn’t explain what BT consider fair use to be. I’d be only to happy to make a considered judgement about whether my £50/month unlimited broadband package was worth that amount if I could see what I was allowed to use it for. The policy explains in its three major sections:

Why do we have a fair use policy?

BT explain that their “… Fair Use Policy manages inappropriate use and makes sure the service can be used fairly by everyone”. And they define inappropriate use:

“A very small number of our customers use their broadband service inappropriately, for example when sending or downloading very large files, or using ‘peer to peer’ and file sharing software (which may be sending and receiving video and other large files constantly)”

So their concern appears to be related to the transmission of very large files and “peer to peer” or file sharing software. There is no mention of an acceptable download (or upload) usage figure, especially for their unlimited services.

How does the fair use Policy work?

Quite simply:

“If you regularly use the service inappropriately during peak hours, and we believe this is unfairly affecting other customers’ use of the service, we’ll manage your bandwidth during peak times (which could result in reduced service speeds).”

The policy clearly states that BT will control bandwidth for what they deem inappropriate use (earlier rather feebly defined as something involving large files and, possibly “peer to peer” and file sharing software) if this is done regularly (again undefined). There is no indication of how long they will continue to manage bandwidth for or an advanced warning that it might be about to happen. They do say that:

“If you continue to use your service inappropriately we reserve the right to end your agreement with us and will give you notice before doing so.”

But, of course, if you weren’t aware that you were using the service in an inappropriate way to begin with how are you supposed to know that you have continued to use it inappropriately. This seems to me to be an opportunity for BT to silently manage bandwidth to whatever extent suits them whilst continuing to charge the full rate for the service.

How do I know if the Fair Use Policy affects me?

BT say: “Our Fair Use Policy applies to all our customers but it’ll only actually affect you if you’re one of the very few customers who make inappropriate use of our service”. So another recursive and incomplete piece of information.

But don’t worry because:

“If you don’t use peer to peer, file sharing or other inappropriate software and you’re not, for example, constantly downloading or uploading: videos or very large files, you’re unlikely to be affected by our Fair Use Policy.”

So quite simply, don’t trouble your pretty little heads over our fair usage policy as it is unlikely to affect you. But hang on a minute,

  • I use the BBC iPlayer and that is peer-to-peer file sharing software,
  • I pay several hundred pounds a year to Microsoft to allow me to download operating system DVD images or sometimes videos from their web site and those are large files.

So, on both those counts BT can legitimately claim that I have fallen foul of their fair use policy and without warning restrict my broadband connection to whatever extent they wish and for however long they wish and still continue to bill me the same amount of money even though they neither specify the acceptable usage limits or provide me with any mechanism by which I can determine my current usage?

That doesn’t seem like fair use to me.

April 8, 2008

ORDB – Gone But Not Forgotten

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: — vextasy @ 9:34 am

ORDB has posed another Web traceability problem for me. They recently announced that they were closing down their Open Relay database that has been used by mail servers to help identify incoming mail likely to be considered spam based on knowledge of the mail senders IP address; the idea being that if enough people reported spam to a centralised organisation then a database could be maintained that could track IP addresses from which spam appeared to originate and then that organisation could provide a lookup service to mail servers which would allow them to rapidly check all incoming mail to determine if it originated from one of these blacklisted IP addresses.

The problem is that although I recall reading about their impending closure, there is now nowhere authoritative that I can find that confirms the current status; their website, at http://ordb.org/news/?id=38, where the original news item was posted (I believe) is currently offline and the word on numerous online sites is that the ORDB service is now reporting all IP addresses as being blacklisted in an attempt to force mail server administrators to remove the ORDB database from their list of blacklist services, presumably to reduce the load on their servers if they decide to re-open in some form. Looking through online forums and blog posts it is clear that plenty of people are experiencing the results of this change.

There is really no technical issue here for me – the correct solution is simply to remove ORDB from my mail servers, which is something I did a while ago anyway. The real issue is that when I googled for “ordb” it was apparent that most of the articles were based on the same sources at www.nabble.com and in turn Slashdot which reported the nabble.com message. The one site I did find that reported a conversation with a former ORDB operator was on a German site at www.heise.de which reported:

Andreas Plesner Jacobsen, a former ORDB operator, explained to heise online sister publication iX that this measure has been introduced because the zone is still swamped with queries. The intention is to get mail server operators to stop using ORDB. Simply deleting the domain was not a viable alternative, since the load would then merely be directed to the .org name server.

Ironically, it seems that the only way ORDB could get people to act to remove them from their mail servers was by breaking their service in a way which forced administrators to investigate – simply making an announcement on their web site was clearly not sufficient.

February 4, 2006

Dear Valued Customer

Filed under: Technology — vextasy @ 12:44 am

I have been a very loyal customer of DynDns for quite sometime now, but a few days ago the following email dropped into my mailbox:

Dear Valued Customer:
The hostname, slug.xxx.co.uk, in account ABCDEF, has
been blocked for abuse. This action has been taken due to the
receipt of multiple updates originating from the same IP
address.
...

The message was from DynDns and was sent in response to the actions of my incorrectly configured DNS update client. What surprised me was just how taken aback I was at the use of the term abuse. As someone who has been using the Internet since some time before the introduction of the web browser I was shocked that I could be accused of abuse. Surely there was some mistake. Nevertheless they were absolutely right.

According to dictionary.com:

Abuse
1. To use wrongly or improperly; misuse: abuse alcohol; abuse a privilege.
2. To hurt or injure by maltreatment; ill-use.
3. To force sexual activity on; rape or molest.
4. To assail with contemptuous, coarse, or insulting words; revile.
5. Obsolete. To deceive or trick.

And I was certainly using their service wrongly. The problem was in the way that I had configured my SLUG to update its own entry on DynDns so that I could always find it from work by its fully qualified domain name even if my non-fixed home IP address changed. My mistake was in not making its update rules quite strict enough. I was occasionally updating my DNS entry when it hadn’t really changed and so I was violating the DnsDns Update Abuse Policy.

The best things may be abused.
– The Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs.

I’ve fixed the problem now and hopefully I’m no longer an abuser but a valued customer once again.

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