Time for more potshots at SWBell

I’m sorry the site’s been down. My DSL modem has been really bad about picking up a signal and even worse about holding on to it when it finds one. Out of desperation I unplugged my Speedsteam and pulled out my old Alcatel that I had in my apartment. The Alcatel didn’t see a signal at all. At least the Speedstream usually saw a partial one. So I pressed the Speedstream back into duty.
But it’s been reliable for the past 7 hours, which must be some kind of record.

Bell swears the Speedstreams are completely reliable and the old Alcatels were junk. I never had problems with my Alcatel, and as far as I know, neither has Steve DeLassus.

I suspect some of the problem is my wiring. The jack in this room was wired sloppily and cheaply with what looks like doorbell wire. Half the jacks in the house never worked at all. I think I’ll have to get a friend to help me pull some CAT5 in here soon, and wire the jacks properly.

I know the phone in this room doesn’t work all that well. I remember the couple of times I’ve dialed up from here, I’ve gotten really low connection speeds, like on the order of 33.6 or lower. I could almost always get 53K from my apartment, less than a mile away. But my apartment had pretty good wiring. (Good thing, because about the only other thing that place had to offer was four walls and a roof.)

Meanwhile, hopefully the site stays reliable. I’ve got the MTU on my web server set below 1500, which fixes the other connectivity problems we’ve had.

And barring all else, maybe I’ll just move my equipment into a different room. But I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Network infrastructure for a small office

We talked earlier this week about servers, and undoubtedly some more questions will come up, but let’s go ahead and talk about small-office network infrastructure.
Cable and DSL modems are affordable enough that any small office within the service area of either ought to get one. For the cost of three dialup accounts, you can have Internet service that’s fast enough to be worth having.

I’ve talked a lot about sharing a broadband connection with Freesco, and while I like Freesco, in an office environment I recommend you get an appliance such as those offered by Linksys, US Robotics, D-Link, Netgear, Siemens, and a host of other companies. There are several simple reasons for this: The devices take up less space, they run cooler, there’s no need to wait for them to boot up in case of power failure or someone accidentally unplugging it, and being solid state, theoretically they’re more reliable than a recycled Pentium-75. Plus, they’re very fast and easy to set up (we’re talking five minutes in most cases) and very cheap–under $50. When I just checked, CompUSA’s house brand router/switch was running $39. It’s hard to find a 5-port switch for much less than that. Since you’ll probably use those switch ports for something anyway, the $10-$20 extra you pay to get broadband connection sharing and a DHCP server is more than worth your time.

My boss swears that when he replaced his Linksys combo router/100-megabit switch with a much pricier Cisco combo router/10-megabit switch, the Cisco was faster, not only upstream, but also on the local network. I don’t doubt it, but you can’t buy Cisco gear at the local office supply store for $49.

For my money, I’d prefer to get a 24-port 3Com or Intel switch and plug it into a broadband sharing device but you’ll pay a lot more for commercial-grade 3Com or Intel gear. The cheap smallish switches you’ll see in the ads in the Sunday papers will work OK, but their reliability won’t be as high. Keep a spare on hand if you get the cheap stuff.

What about wireless? Wireless can save you lots of time and money by not having to run CAT5 all over the place–assuming your building isn’t already wired–and your laptop users will love having a network connection anywhere they go. But security is an issue. At the very least, change your SSID from the factory default, turn on WEP (check your manual if it isn’t obvious how to do it), and hard-code your access point(s) to only accept the MAC addresses of the cards your company owns (again, check your manual). Even that isn’t enough necessarily to keep a determined wardriver out of your network. Cisco does the best job of providing decent security, but, again, you can’t buy Cisco gear at your local Staples. Also, to make it easier on yourself, make sure your first access point and your first couple of cards are the same brand. With some work, the variety pack will usually work together. Like-branded stuff always will. When you’re doing your initial setup, you want the first few steps to go as smoothly as possible.

I’d go so far as to turn off DHCP on the wireless segment. Most wardrivers probably have the ability to figure out your network topology, gateway, and know some DNSs. But why make life easier for them? Some won’t know how to do that, and that’ll keep them out. The sophisticated wardriver may decide it’s too much trouble and go find a friendlier network.

Why worry about wireless security? A wardriver may or may not be interested in your LAN. But that’s one concern. And while I don’t care if someone mooches some bandwidth off my LAN to go read USA Today, and I’d only be slightly annoyed if he used it to go download the newest version of Debian, I do care if someone uses my wireless network to send spam to 250,000 of his closest friends, or if he uses my wireless network to visit a bunch of child porn or warez sites.

Enough about that. Let’s talk about how to wire everything. First off, if you use a switched 100-megabit network, you can just wire everything together and not give much thought to anything. But if you’re using hubs or wireless to connect your desktops, be sure to put your servers on 100-megabit switch ports. The servers can then talk to each other at full speed if and when that’s necessary. And a switch port allows them to talk at full speed to a number of slower desktop PCs at once. The speed difference can be noticable.

More wireless networking

Well, I took the plunge. What good is credit when you don’t use it, right? I didn’t want to run CAT5 Ethernet cable everywhere and I didn’t want to spend hours playing with Linux drivers for phone-line networks that have been in beta for a year. Especially not with what few Usenet posts mention those drivers also mentioning kernel panics. No thanks.
Dan Bowman pointed out that JustDeals had good prices available on wireless gear. So I picked up a plain-old access point for $70 (I don’t want a combo access point/router/switch because I want something I can turn off when I’m not using it–can’t beat that for security) and a PCMCIA NIC for $29 and a pair of USB NICs for $29. That’ll let me put a computer in the front room and a computer in the spare room and it’ll let me wander around with my work laptop.

Dirt-cheap prices, no rebate hassles. Gotta love it. CompUSA’s prices on Netgear kit are good, but there are rebates involved, which is always a pain.

My plan for security, besides powering off the access point when I’m not using it, is to turn off DHCP, hard-code it to my NICs, turn on 128-bit WEP, use obnoxious passphrases, and place the access point as far from the outside wall as possible. That should give me acceptable security, especially considering the physical location of my house. Neither of my next-door neighbors has a wireless LAN, and I seriously doubt the neighbors behind me do either, and they’re pretty far back and might even be out of range anyway. I’m at the end of a street deep in a residential area, so most wardrivers probably won’t bother. And if they do, I’ll be home and I’ll probably see them.

One thing I learned today, which reveals my ignorance yesterday, is that most wireless NICs accept the “Any” parameter that we used to get a Linksys NIC talking with a 3Com access point so we could configure it. But your documentation may or may not mention it.

02/06/2001

Shopping. I went to Wal-Mart yesterday intending to pick up shampoo and vitamins. On a whim, I wandered over to the electronics section, and found some surprises. I knew they sold HP computers, but I didn’t realize they’d branched into the types of product that require you to pop the hood to install. I guess PCs really have gone mainstream. Power splitters, four bucks. Keyboard adapters, four bucks. Creative 52X CD-ROM drives, 58 bucks. You can get the same thing, only the white box version, from Mwave.com for $36, but shipping will eat half the price difference and if you need a CD-ROM drive at 3 a.m. for some reason, well, you can get it. The same goes for a keyboard or a mouse. Don’t laugh–I was visiting a friend one weekend several years ago, and about 8:30 p.m. Friday he decides it’s time to build his new PC. So we piled into his car and barreled off to CompUSA, and arrived in the parking lot at 9:05. Too late. So I know someone who’d appreciate being able to get components at odd hours.

More interesting was a special phone cord made of LAN-grade CAT5 cable. Pricey at $8, but it’ll improve your modem connection slightly, if you’re still cursed with a dialup connection. They had network cables too, at $8 for a 10-footer and $12 for a 15-footer. That’s about the same price as CompUSA, but Wal-Mart is probably closer and it’s open longer hours.

I didn’t end up buying any of that stuff. I did find a rotating CD tower with a 112-disc capacity for 10 bucks. I snapped that up. I’ve got about 1/4 that many data CDs laying around, but the way those things breed, I’ll fill it. You’ll frequently pay that price for a 25-disc tower. I also found a disk box for $2. Nothing fancy at all–it looks like a recipe box–but who needs something fancy to hold disks? I remember I used to pay $8 for beige disk boxes with see-through tops that held 50 disks. This costs 1/4 as much and holds more. The plastic’s thinner and you can’t see through the top, but these stack better. And the price was right. So I grabbed one. I thought about getting a second, but I figured no, I probably only have about 50 stray disks laying around, so a second box would just be extra clutter, and I just spent all weekend trying to get rid of extra clutter. I got home, herded up all the stray floppies I could find, and filled the box. Then I spotted another stack of floppies laying forgotten under a pile of papers. Rats. I should have grabbed a second box. Next time I’m out I’ll grab another one.

O’Reilly revisited. Frank McPherson had some interesting observations yesterday about O’Reilly in general and Optimizing Windows in particular. He said he didn’t like the title. I never liked it either; I thought it was cumbersome, limiting, and meaningless (which is why I usually just call it Optimizing Windows). Games is too limiting, graphics is too limiting, and multimedia is a buzzword that’s lost all meaning. The book title on the contract read “Essential Windows 9x Optimization.” I’m not sure if that was the title on the proposal or where that working title came from. I remember giving O’Reilly a list of about 10 possible titles, but they kept coming back to Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia. I cited gamers in the proposal as one potential audience for the book, they ran with it.

Frank also brought up pricing and book length. It’s much harder to write a short book; had I skipped the self-editing process Optimizing Windows probably would have been closer to 330 pages instead of 290. I didn’t see that adding filler would add any value to the book, and I really wanted to stay under 300 pages so the book wouldn’t look intimidating. But people expect computer books to be thick. I remember seeing a picture of someone’s Apollo workstation, and he included a picture of his Apollo manuals. They would have nearly filled one of my 6-foot bookshelves. It was a ridiculous mass of 3-ring binders. But people seem to expect computer books to be 900 pages, just like they expect a CD to play for an hour.

I think Frank hit the nail on the head when he talked about layout. He cited bigger print and more whitespace and more use of graphics. Indeed, those things sell. I remember doing newsletter layouts with my ex-girlfriend. I’d lay the elements on the page, then she’d add tons of whitespace. A lot less fit on the page, but it looked a lot better and read much more quickly that way. She also added a lot of unnecessary flourishes. A hardcore computer geek would dismiss that as bravado, but it makes the pages look a lot better. People notice those things when they flip through the book or magazine in the store.

My editors at Computer Shopper UK asked me to provide them with more screenshots than I have been lately. I sent them 14, which I thought was a ridiculous number. I just got a PDF proof of my next article, for the April issue. They used 11 of them, and there’s no denying it looks great.

Pricing’s tougher. I suspect O’Reilly uses higher-quality paper than some of the other publishers, and that quickly adds cost. But if I didn’t have a degree in magazine publishing I probably wouldn’t notice the difference. I know Joe Consumer doesn’t notice and would rather pay $5 less. Some people would buy the book printed on newsprint if they could save 10 bucks. I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever knew about binding, but my O’Reilly books are bound better than some of the other computer books I have. I don’t think that matters much either though; I have a lot of comb-bound computer books too and I don’t think less of them because of it.

01/28/2001

I liked how yesterday’s experiment went. So here’s the good stuff I found yesterday.

Laptop intro (Tom’s Hardware Guide)

Aside from spelling errors (notebooks have “gismos,” and PCMCIA network cards connect to CAT5 cable through the use of a “dangle”), this is a pretty good introduction to notebook PCs, covering recent developments like miniPCI and MDC as well and explaining oft-confusing battery technology.

The roundup of video chipsets common in notebooks is nice, and includes the important but easily overlooked power consumption of each solution.

I was disappointed that there was no mention of a previous THG notebook article, http://www4.tomshardware.com/cpu/00q4/001107/index.html , which talked about little-known upgrade paths–by replacing the MMC in a notebook, it’s possible to cross generations. Yes, you can upgrade an old Pentium-based notebook to a P2 or Celeron, assuming you can find an aftermarket MMC.

When you have information like that, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning it whenever another article with similar information gets posted.

These two articles are essential reading if you’re in the market for a laptop, or if your job includes spec’ing and ordering laptops.

EPoX EP-8KTA3 review (AnandTech)

Good discussion of the board’s weaknesses, especially in regards to routing cables and heat dissipation. Heat might be less of an issue if they didn’t assume everyone overclocks, but heat is your PC’s enemy, whether you’re running out of spec or within it. Also good coverage of this board’s special features, including a two-digit diagnostic LCD display on the board. If something goes wrong and it can’t boot, this board will tell you what happened.

Benchmarking is limited to Content Creation, Sysmark, and Quake III Arena under Windows 98, so this is hardly an authoritative evaluation of performance. If you’re into flight sims, racing games, strategy games, or RPG games (let’s face it, first-person shooters aren’t everyone’s thing, and for good reason), Anand’s benchmarks are worthless to you.

This is a decent review, but hardly authoritative. If you’re thinking about buying a KT133A-based Athlon board and you’re considering the EP-8KTA3, you’ll definitely want to look for reviews on another site. You’ll know from reading the KT-133A roundup at THG  that the EP-8KTA3 is a better all-around performer than the Abit K7TA, but you won’t get that from this review.

Mosel Vitelic “PC143” SDRAM (Hardware Daily)

Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous. To wit: “This Mosel Vitelic ram is actually the same as Mushkin Rev2.0 ram. But this one doesn’t have the Mushkin stickers on it and it doesn’t comes with the bubble delivery bag.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Same chips doesn’t mean same module. Same PCB and same chips doesn’t necessarily mean same module. Here’s the scoop: a 7ns chip may not necessarily run at 7 ns. If a chip runs at 6.9 ns, it’s marked as 7. If it runs at 6.6 ns, it’s marked at 7. If it runs at 7.1, it’s marked as 7.5. What Mushkin’s doing is testing and putting the very fastest 7s on their rev. 3 modules. The second-best go on the rev. 2s. This takes additional testing, which adds to the cost. Buy your Mosel Vitelic memory elsewhere, and you’ll have some 6.6 ns chips and some 7.0s–your results won’t be predictable. One module may run a lot faster than the next. But we’re way ahead of ourselves here.

“According to sisoft Sandra 2001, the chips on this ram is made by Apacer rated at 133mhz.” Wrong again. The reviewer’s hardware knowledge seems as limited as his knowledge of proper English grammar. The chips are made by Mosel Vitelic ( www.moselvitelic.com ), a Taiwanese memory manufacturer who’s been around since 1991 (it was a merger of two companies, each founded in 1983) whose memory is gaining a reputation among overclockers because of its use by Mushkin. Apacer ( www.apacer.com ), on the other hand, makes memory modules.

He then ran some tests in SiSoft Sandra that make this memory look very impressive, but they didn’t do anything to stress-test the RAM to ensure that indeed it was stable at 160 MHz. They also encourage running it at 160 MHz CAS3, which is dubious advice–you get better burst speeds but higher latency that way. That’s precisely the problem with Rambus. How about some benchmarks that more closely resemble real-world performance?

Mosel Vitelic is getting such a reputation that you’ll soon see cheap, generic PCBs with Mosel Vitelic chips on them being sold dirt cheap and bought by misinformed people who read reviews like this and think they’re getting Mushkin-calibre memory for half price.

Mosel Vitelic does make and market their own modules, but that’s not what this is. Manufacturers like Mosel Vitelic and Apacer will be pretty safe, but what you’re paying for when you buy Mushkin is their hand-picking of chips, so you’ll get better, or at least more consistent, results with a Mushkin module.

If you want a near clone of Mushkin memory, you’ll have to look for a module manufactured by Mosel Vitelic themselves (good luck), or by a brand-name maker like Apacer containing 7 ns Mosel Vitelic chips. But you won’t necessarily get the same results.

The review concludes with this: “I highly recommend this ram for people who are looking for good overclocking performance. This teaches us a lesson that good ram isn’t always expensive!”

Unfortunately, the reviewer recommended the wrong thing. The true lesson of this review is that you don’t always get burned when you buy cheap memory, but a few runs of SiSoft Sandra isn’t a good way to test system stability, so this reviewer really doesn’t know what he’s got. He only thinks he does.

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