Friday, September 16, 2011

Mobile Blogging

If you use Blogger to blog as I do,  and you have an Android device,  you might want to check out the Blogger application for Android.   You can use it to blog on the run! I do admit that typing on a virtual keyboard is not conducive to long posts, but a brief note is very feasible. This gives you the ability to use a short break to post a quick note from virtually anywhere, at any time.

It's available for download from the usual places for free.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dropbox Update

As a user of Dropbox, I received an update in my e-mail (and you probably did, too) attempting to clarify the recent uproar over their Terms of Service (TOS).  I think they've done a pretty good job of stating their terms in more clear language, and further, of explaining why they need the rights they are claiming through your agreement to use the service.  That said, I still stand by my earlier positions in that they DO have access to your data, and you DO need to evaluate what you choose to store on your Dropbox, and whether the risk of abuse of your data is low enough to feel safe storing it with Dropbox.

Here's a bit of the statement Dropbox released on their blog:
Some of you have written us with very understandable concerns about the legal-sounding parts. In particular, our new TOS talks about the licenses we need to run Dropbox. We want to be 100% clear that you own what you put in your Dropbox. We don’t own your stuff. And the license you give us is really limited. It only allows us to provide the service to you. Nothing else.
We think it’s really important that you understand the license. It’s about the permissions you give us to run the service, things like creating public links when you ask us to, allowing you to collaborate with colleagues in shared folders, generating web previews or thumbnails of your files, encrypting files, creating backups… the basic things that make Dropbox safe and easy to use. Services like Google Docs and others do the same thing when they get these permissions (see, for example, section 11.1 of Google’s TOS).
We wish we didn’t have to use legal terms at all, but copyright law is complicated and if we don’t get these permissions in writing, we might be putting ourselves in a tough spot down the road. Not to bore you with the details, but please take a look at the license term in the TOS. We think it’s fair and strikes the right balance: “This license is solely to enable us to technically administer, display, and operate the Services.”

They have gone to great lengths to state clearly that under normal circumstances they will not access your data, and that data they collect is to better operate the service.  I'm not a lawyer, I don't know how well that would stand up in court if it were part of a lawsuit, but it does look pretty reassuring when reading it as a layman.  They have not clarified how they deal with potential abuse of your data by individual Dropbox employees.  One would assume they have provision in their terms of employment to deal with that, but the likelihood of abuse is highest from disgruntled (ex-)employees who are likely not concerned with remaining employed by Dropbox, and once your data is exposed, there's no stuffing the genie back into the bottle.

So, Dropbox (and really, all cloud computing services) remain a security risk that you need to evaluate for yourself.  A lot of family history data is probably just fine on Dropbox, especially if it's also posted to online trees such as or as well.  Just be careful of data you wish to remain private.

And I'm still not a fan of the Cloud...

This and all other articles on this blog are © copyright 2011 by Daniel G. Dillman

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dropbox Warning

We all know and love Dropbox, the web-based service that lets us share files between our computers using 'Cloud' technology, right?  Just drop your files in the Dropbox folder, and you can access them from any other Dropbox connected computer.  Great concept!

Here's the problem: By using a 'Cloud' service, you essentially allow someone else to hold your data for you, and you are subject to their whims as to what they can do with it.  Previously, Dropbox had a pretty decent statement of how they would hold your data.  It was all supposed to be totally private, not even Dropbox employees could get at it.  Until the US Government demanded some data that Dropbox was holding.  And then it turns out that Dropbox employees could indeed access data if it was necessary, such as to comply with a court order.  Or if some bored, disgruntled employee decided they wanted to snoop.

Now it's worse.  Dropbox just changed their Terms of Service (TOS), and there's some worrisome language in there that essentially assigns full copyright to all of your data to Dropbox: 

'By submitting your stuff to the Services, you grant us (and those we work with to provide the Services) worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable rights to use, copy, distribute, prepare derivative works (such as translations or format conversions) of, perform, or publicly display that stuff to the extent we think it necessary for the Service.'

Oh, and sublicenseable, meaning they can let anyone else use your data as well.   Is that what you signed up for?  Is that okay with you? 

This is one of my biggest problems with 'Cloud Computing'.  It's like handing someone your wallet, and trusting them to just hold it, not let anyone else access it, and not access it themselves.  The pressure is just too great for them to just snoop a little, or give in to demands from others to get access for various reasons.  This has always been my problem with Cloud Computing, but the market was all gung ho with a new buzzword, a new (not really) concept, and a huge marketing push to drive customers.  What providers like about Cloud Computing is that it's portable.  They can build new data centers anywhere it's cheap to do so.  Cost of doing business in Hong Kong getting too high?  Let's move the datacenter to Thailand.  Somewhere that labor and rent is cheap.

Dropbox is very convenient.  But is it worth giving away your data?

This and all other articles on this blog are © copyright 2011 by Daniel G. Dillman

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

21st Century - Why No Cell Phones?

Stand by, as this will be something of a rant.

I recently spent time in hospitals with ailing relatives.  Considerable time with one.  Virtually the first sign you seen on entering a hospital is the one banning cell phone usage.  Airlines are no better.

Why?  If you ask, they'll tell you it's because cell phones interfere with the equipment, whether it's lifesaving medical gear or essential avionics.  

Okay, people, this is the 21st century, cellphones have been common for almost 20 years now.  In fact, in the western world, they're virtually considered essential.  Many people have even done away with their land lines altogether! Why have you not hardened your gear to prevent such interference, or redesigned it such that cell signals do not affect the equipment?  It's blatantly obvious, and has been for a good 10 years now, that cell phones are becoming more common, not less common.  There is no excuse for continuing to insist that we shut off our communication with our friends and families.  As a matter of fact, in a hospital is a time when people most need to communicate with loved ones!  I have to say, as soon as people find out someone's in the hospital, they want to know the details immediately.  Cutting off our cell phones is probably the worst customer service you can provide.

To add insult to injury, hospital staff run around with what appear to be cell phones.  They might utilize some other technology, I have not inquired, but it rubs salt in the wound when it appears you get to use cell phones, but we don't.  Is it a control issue?

I could see when cell phones were new and bulky and used huge amounts of power to send and receive usable analog signals back in the early 1990's, before medical device manufacturers and aircraft manufacturers had had a chance to study the issue and make adjustments to prevent unwanted interference, maybe banning the cell phones was necessary.  But that was almost 20 years ago, and cell phones now use a tiny fraction of the power they required back then.  Seriously, how much interference are they causing? 

Start working immediately to harden your equipment against cell phone signals.  I guarantee you, cell phones are only going to become more common, and your customers are only going to expect to use them everywhere, and to resent your bans.  Do your customers a service and fix the problem now.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cloud Computing

We hear a lot about "Cloud" computing or services these days.  What does that mean?

     Cloud computing refers to applications or data storage that is not local to us - meaning it is somewhere out on the Internet.  Why is this called "Cloud" computing?  Well, technical people know that for decades, in network diagrams, computers have been represented by icons, and networks by lines connecting the computer icons.  This works well for documenting a building's computer network, but when you start diagramming many buildings or even the entire Internet, the connections get to be too complicated to diagram exactly.

     In the case of the Internet itself, it gets more complicated in that the infrastructure of the Internet is designed to be flexible in the exact network paths data can take to get from you to your destination and back.  This makes the Internet very robust as a delivery mechanism, in that it can (and is specifically designed to) route around a damaged or very slow section by using an alternate route, transparently.  It makes diagramming very difficult, as paths can change rapidly, even many times per second.  So, to represent that uncertain path, network diagrams have traditionally used a cloud-like symbol to signify the Internet.
Cloud network diagram.  Source: Wikipedia

     So, Cloud computing or storage refers to applications or storage that resides "in the cloud" out on the Internet.  Why would we want to do that?  Well, "cloud" providers are able to set up large datacenters to host all of this, which allows them to offer services at very low cost due to economies of scale.  Also, cloud storage is off-site, which is an appealing thing for backing up data in that if your location gets hit with a large-scale disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, your data is still safe in a remote datacenter location, able to be restored.  Also, these services have staff who can maintain your server or data storage, freeing you from the responsibility of doing so.

     Okay, so this Cloud stuff sounds pretty good!  Why doesn't everyone do this?  Well, last week's Blogger outage is one example.  If you hosted your blog on your own server at your house or office, you would never have known there was a problem blogging.  If you own a Sony Playstation game console, you're probably aware that the Playstation Network has been down for nearly a month!  Just because something is hosted in a datacenter does not mean it's immune to failure.  Most have many redundancies built-in to try to minimize down-time, but nothing is foolproof, right?  Major power outages have been known to take datacenters offline.  Communications lines have been cut, both intentionally and unintentionally.  Human error has also caused major problems as well. 

     Okay, so cloud services have issues, too.  But right now, "Cloud Computing" is a hot buzzword in the IT industry.  All of the consultants are pushing everyone to put their data and hosting in the cloud.  In fact, they often encourage businesses to outsource their IT needs to the cloud.  It's so much cheaper to host a company's IT needs in the cloud than to hire a staff of IT guys to build and maintain your own, they say.  And they might be right, except that what happens when the cloud fails?  Your business goes right along with it, and you have no way to operate until the cloud is back online.  If you host your own servers on-site, you at least have access to immediately work on repairing or replacing the failed equipment.  At the very least, you probably need a minimal IT staff on-site to maintain the local network infrastructure and computers.  Cloud computing services don't deal with the equipment on your premises.  In the cloud, you have to trust that the hosting provider will be diligent in getting you back online ASAP.  Since their contracts usually specify some level of service guarantee, they usually try pretty hard to keep you online, or get you back up quickly, as their reputation and business live or die by that ability to keep you working.

     There's another downside to Cloud Computing: bandwidth.  If your storage is all out in the cloud, there has to be a way to get the data to and from that storage.  That's your Internet connection.  Is it fast enough to handle the load?  Does your Internet Service Provider place a cap on the amount of data you can send and receive in a month?  With the ever-increasing size of our data files these days, this is an important consideration.  If your data is local, it's not an issue as your network is much faster than the Internet, and you have no imposed limit on how much you can use it.

     Are these downsides enough to rule out cloud storage?  For some, it might be.  For the average blogger?  Not really.  Even many businesses find these negatives are more than offset by lowered costs of operation, or ability to get hosting by someone with the knowledge and staff to properly maintain it.  It tends to work better for small businesses that can't afford an IT staff with the variety of knowledge needed in today's business world.  Large corporations will tend to maintain their own network servers and storage in-house, as they prefer the immediacy of having the data on-site and have the staff to dedicate to keeping it running.  Whether a cloud model works for your situation or not will depend on many factors which you will have to weigh carefully before committing to one method or the other, or even a combination.  Just consider carefully, and don't be pushed into the cloud because some sales guy said it was all the rage and the perfect solution, because as recent events have shown, Cloud Computing isn't perfect!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

National Clean Off Your Desk Day

Subject says it all!  That said, I think I need a National Clean Off Your Desk WEEK!  I considered taking a picture to support my claim, but I'm too ashamed of this train wreck to even take a picture, let alone post it here...  So, how does YOUR desk look?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Family Tech Support

Sooner or later, every IT Support person ends up supporting the technology of their families and friends.  It's inevitable, an occupational hazard, as they say.  Some techs eventually figure out ways to avoid such work entirely, some try to minimize it to basic support while others accept it wholeheartedly as a way to give back to their families and friends.  Mostly it seems to depend on how well said supported family and friends adhere to advice given, with those who carefully listen and heed advice being happily supported and those who can't seem to learn from their own mistakes being shunned.  I fall somewhere between the latter two, being usually very willing to help, but on occasion wishing I didn't have to go out in the cold.

Today's family support call was from my dear sweet mother whom I am happy to support whenever she needs it.  She started getting a scary error on boot: Disk Read Error.  Ruh-roh!  Complicating things was a keyboard error also on boot, but we were able to resolve that via phone, just a loose connection.  I'll make a trip over and pick up the machine to work on on my workbench.  Easy items I'll fix on-site, but this one may get involved.  Fortunately I have a spare drive laying around I can swap in if required.

What about you?  Do you support willingly?  Grudgingly if forced into it?  Not at all?  Let me know in the comments below.