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Life threatening flaw in phone system?

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 26-Aug-2007 22:51

Today I saw an article on Stuff (which usually remove content after two weeks, so if the link doesn't work blame them) that made me think people can't stop spreading FUD:


Telecom's long-awaited $1.4 billion "next generation network" has a potentially life-threatening flaw - it won't work in a power cut.

The alarming implication of not being able to make emergency 111 calls has rescue services concerned and the government wondering how to ensure phone lines stay open in emergencies.

The revelation comes just months after a revamp of the 111 system and a year after a storm in Canterbury left almost 20,000 homes without power, some for almost two weeks. As a result, Canterbury Civil Defence Emergency Management Group worked closely with Telecom to ensure telephone systems would continue working in disasters.

Telecom's new all-digital system is to be phased in over the next five years and will deliver increasingly sophisticated communication services to homes, such as video on demand. But unlike current phone lines it requires a mains-powered "gateway" device in each customer's home.


The article goes on and on with this line. But you can clearly see that the "revamp of the 111 [emergency] system] has nothing to do with the telco.

The story doesn't really explain why they come to this conclusion except that the new system uses a "mains-powered 'gateway' device".

So let's explain what the paper failed to tell you: they are talking about Voice over IP (VoIP). When you use VoIP your voice calls go over the Internet connection, not over the landline.

Wait a minute, doesn't my Internet connection go over the landline anyway? In some cases yes, if you use a technology such as DSL, which uses the same copper wires that transmit circuit switched calls (voice calls) to transmist packet switched (Internet) data.

Sometime soon you will be able to get DSL service without having to rent a landline from Telecom. When this happens you could have your voice calls provided by another company using the copper - or simply use a VoIP service such as Xnet VFX.

Here comes the thing: VoIP requires a small box that will translate the analogue signals from your telephone to the Internet digital standards. And here lies the problem: if there's a power outage, this box won't work.

The solution is to buy a small UPS, a device that sits between this box and the mains, and if the power goes down it will provide energy from its internal battery, for a certain amount of time. Ihave two of these devices here at home - they power my entire home office (two desktops, two laptops, printer, router, cable modem, VoIP gateway). If the power goes down I have about 100 minutes of energy to keep us going. Or I can shutdown my computers and have even more time for the Internet router and VoIP gateway.

If you use a standard landline for your voice calls you won't have this kind of problem. That's because the power for the telephone comes down the copper, direct from the exchange.

The article on Stuff failed to explain all this, instead trying to focus in all the horror that would happen if we lived in a society where everyone uses VoIP and no one has a mobile phone.

Which reminds me that you already have this problem today if you use a cordless phone. That's because if the power goes down your cordless phone is useless. Go on, try it without power and you will see.

Why didn't the Stuff folks wrote an article about the life-threatening flaw of cordless phones?



Microsoft take note: your customer services people don't know what's going on

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 26-Aug-2007 09:26

It appears the Windows Validation server was FUBAR for a while... As it is expected when a single point of failure, well, fails, you would have people screaming - even more if this failed component labels you as a pirate and it's an essential part of the software distribution model a company implements:



This is not the tip of the iceberg. One of our Geekzone users contacted Microsoft Activation phone line, and the customer (dis)service representative instead of providing the correct information about the validation servers having a server problem, decided to call the user a pirate, and disconnected the call.

Way to go with customer services Microsoft...

UPDATE: Microsoft admits there were problems with its WGA server (validation) and it should be working again. No word on what's gone wrong.


We've been receiving reports on our forum and through customer service starting last night that Windows Vista validations have been failing on genuine systems. It looks now as though the issue has been resolved and validations are being processed successfully.

Customers who received an incorrect validation response can fix their system by revalidating on our site (http://www.microsoft.com/genuine). We encourage anyone who received a validation failure since Friday evening to do this now. After successfully revalidating any affected system should be rebooted to ensure the genuine-only features are restored.


Now, I really, really think customer services people who fail the "services" part should get the boot. Or retraining under fire.

Bad service is the worst thing in any industry.

UPDATE: I have just received an e-mail from Microsoft New Zealand, copying the user in question. Microsoft apologised by this incident, and agrees this should not be the way the customer service handled the call - even more because it was a worldwide meltdown in the company's own WGA servers.

UPDATE:
This is an update on what happened durig the meltdown.



OpenXML votes in New Zealand

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 24-Aug-2007 14:42

It's time to lobby again! During the last two days Standards New Zealand was hosting a meeting to discuss its position regarding Open XML.

According to the current Wikipedia entry:


Open XML is an XML-based file format specification for electronic documents such as memos, reports, books, spreadsheets, charts, presentations and word processing documents. The specification has been developed by Microsoft as a successor of its binary office file formats and was published by Ecma International as the Ecma 376 standard in December 2006.
 
Uninitiated users may confuse "Office Open XML" with "OpenDocument" (ISO 26300:2006) and "OpenOffice". Therefore it is commonly referred to as OOXML or its earlier name Open XML.


Office Open XML uses a number of dedicated XML markup languages in fileparts that are placed in a file container (Open Packaging Convention ). The format specification which is available for free at Ecma International includes XML schemas that can be used to validate the XML syntax.



So what's Standards New Zealand involvement in all this? The group is assessing stakeholder views on the suitability of a document on Office Open XML for publication as an International Standard. This is from their press release:


...New Zealand is obliged to vote on the adoption of the European Computer Manufacturers’ Association Office Open XML document (ECMA 376) as an International Standard. This document is currently designated draft international Standard (DIS) 29500 and is available at http://www.jtc1sc34.org/. There is an existing international Standard for Open XML, referred to as Open Document Format (ODF), which was published last year (ISO/IEC 26300).

Standards New Zealand, as New Zealand’s national Standards body holds the responsibility to cast this vote on behalf of New Zealand.

‘The aim of the meeting is to assess and understand New Zealand stakeholder views to allow Standards New Zealand to make an informed vote on behalf of New Zealand. This meeting will be independently chaired by Ms Alison Holt, the New Zealand delegate to the international committee JTC1 SC7 Software Engineering’ said Grant Thomas, Chief Operating Officer, Standards New Zealand.


The way I read it, when Standards New Zealand sends out a press release with "[There is] an existing international Standard for Open XML, referred to as Open Document Format (ODF), which was published last year (ISO/IEC 26300)." it makes all sound like "we have already decided, there is one standard already, why bother with another one and these two days are just formality"...

I'd suggest you check Rod Drury's reasoning on why we should have another standard. A standard doesn't mean it must be unique. Microsoft's Sean McBreen wrote:


Do other standardised document formats not exist today?
Yes, in fact there are actually many different and at times overlapping formats that exist today, for instance PDF/A, ODF and HTML are all ISO/IEC standard document types today.

Why do we need multiple standardised formats?
Multiple formats are required as requirements change and to cater for differing scenarios for instance PNG and JPEG are two ISO/IEC image standards in heavy use today.  Individuals and organisations will also continue to innovate and standards must evolve to keep pace with this, for instance MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG -4 are all ISO/IEC standards for video encoding.

What is the impact to the industry if Open XML is not accepted as an ISO/IEC standard?
Literally billions of documents today are stored and saved using Microsoft Office file formats, an important aspect of Open XML is backwards compatibility for these documents.  Not standardising Open XML will have an impact on the longevity of these documents and force government departments, individual organisations and consumers to migrate all of their documents over time.  It will also significantly reduce the choice available to our customers in relation to document formats.

What is the impact to Microsoft if Open XML is not accepted as a standard?
While standards themselves don’t dictate customer and partner behaviour or purchasing patterns they do have a strong influence on this over time.  As a result there is likely to be a direct impact on the adoption of Microsoft products if Open XML is not accepted as a standard that will reduce our ability to compete in the marketplace.



If a standard is mandated and does not support all the functionality and formatting of a document (say a Microsoft Word 97 document), all the unsupported formatting will be lost in conversion. This raises questions about the validity of the document as a historic record as it has not been maintained in the original formatting. 

Secondly it means that someone has to go through and fix the documents - and when you consider the number of potential documents affected, this would be an expensive exercise.

Who's going to tell these organizations that they have to do all this work to move their documents to ODF and fix all the formatting issues and manage the compliance issues?

Simply saying that the standard should translate the old "rendering quirks" into the new and less buggy version doesn't cut it.

Just check the previous ITC vote and comments. Several companies explicitly said that there was a place for both ODF and Open XML as a standard.

Here is an interesting take on this issue, including a reference to Kiwibank, showing how this whole thing can impact enterprises and the market.



Windows Home Server and Squeezebox

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 24-Aug-2007 11:47

I have been running Windows Home Server for a while now, currently as a virtual machine, alongside other three virtual machines on the same desktop box I have here.

Now that Windows Home Server is available here in New Zealand and Australia (the rest of the world needs to wait!) and seeing it doesn't look like it will be making into MSDN subscriptions anytime soon, I decided to buy a copy now, and should have it here tomorrow morning.

The plan is to install Windows Home Server as the host OS, and keep running Windows Virtual Server on it, plus a couple of really cool plugins I found through wegotserved.co.uk.

This will reduce the number of virtual machines on this hardware by one, freeing up 1 GB RAM (out of a total 2.5 GB on this host), which will be enough to run the Windows Home Server as host. The host has an internal 160 GB SATA drive, plus two external drives for a total of 1.45 TB storage, so this should be enough.

I currently run Hamachi Premium on my Windows Home Server, which means I am always in my home LAN, regardless of where I am connected to the Internet.

As part of this master plan I am also getting a Logitech Squeezebox. I have tested the SlimServer software and it works really well under Windows Home Server, and the SoftSqueeze emulator played all my music content and radio, so adding the Squeezebox to the network is not going to be a problem.

Windows Home Server is a great home LAN solution, allowing you to automatically backup your PCs, and keep the content safe by automatically "balancing" the content between your drives. Adding or removing more disc space is easy, and all the "magic" mirroring happens behind the scenes.

Some of the plugins I have installed are the Add Website and Whiist.

If you haven't seen Windows Home Server yet, here are some screenshots:









Why you shouldn't use your ISP's e-mail address

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 24-Aug-2007 10:22

Lance has written a good blog post about why you shouldn't use your ISP-provided e-mail address, instead looking at hosted services, such as GMail, Yahoo!, Windows Live Hotmail - he even refers to our own geekzonemail service!

Of course if you are a geek with a penchant for managing servers, and have a rather large broadband allowance, plus spare hardware then you could run your own e-mail server, with your own domain.

But at least GMail and Windows Live Hotmail provide hosted services for you if you really want to go that way.



Karajoz Great Blend in Wellington again

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 23-Aug-2007 10:21

I just got an invitation and wrote down in my calendar:


It's Karajoz Great Blend Time again, and Public Address has pulled together another fine line-up of intellectual entertainment, news and debate - and we'd like you to join us.

For our penultimate event of 2007, we are taking over The Overseas Terminal in Oriental Bay.

This time we are over-the-moon to present Singapore’s ‘Blogfather’ Lee Kin Mun, or mrbrown to his readers, and web supremo and former head of interactive at the BBC Dr William Cooper.

Joining them onstage and debating all the digital issues known to man will be TVNZ’s Tom Cotter and Radio New Zealand’s Mark Cubey.

If you’ve been to past events you’ll know that the night’s blend of information, debate, discussion and entertainment is not to be missed.

Also, Public Address has convinced its favourite band, Christchurch’s L.E.D.s to venture north, and the night will be fuelled by coffee from Karajoz, Monteith’s beer and wine from Hatton Estate and backed by TVNZ and the British Council.

When and where:
The Karajoz Great Blend
The Overseas Terminal Function Centre
1 Herd Street
Chaffers Marina
Oriental Bay
Wellington

Thursday 30 August 2007 from 6pm


I've been to a Karajoz Great Blend before and it was heaps of fun. You should try to be there.



Geekzonemail free e-mail FAQ

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 23-Aug-2007 09:54

It's been interesting looking through the numbers since we launched the free Geekzonemail e-mail service (a branded Windows Live Mail service). I am seeing a lot of interest in the service and some comments too. Here are some of my thoughts and notes on this (as a kind of FAQ):




- Is it Windows Live Mail?
Yes, it is. But it's a branded Windows Live Mail address - [youraccount]@geekzonemail.com. How cool is that?

- Lots of space?
Yep, 2GB storage available for your e-mails.

- What about security?
The whole infrastructure is provided by the Windows Live service, and we have no access to e-mail contents or other user information. Your account is a valid Windows Live ID, and as such it can be used to identify you to other Windows Live services - including live.com, Live Messenger, etc.

- Do I have to use webmail only?
You can access the service through the webmail interface, or use free Microsoft Outlook Connector to access the service directly from within Microsoft Outlook 2003 or Microsoft Outlook 2007. If you don't have Microsoft Outlook but you have a Windows XP or Windows Vista PC, then you can use the Windows Live Mail client.

- Can I access my e-mails from a mobile phone?
You can use your mobile phone's mobile browser to check your e-mails by visiting http://live.mobile.com.

- Is there a push e-mail option?
You bet! You can use the Geekzonemail address to login into Windows Live for Windows Mobile on your Pocket PC or Smartphone running Windows Mobile 6 and you will have an option to receive e-mails as they arrive on your inbox.


Sign up now for geekzonemail.com



Speaking at Microsoft New Zealand Partner Conference

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 22-Aug-2007 16:39

If you are a Microsoft Partner, don't miss this year's Microsoft New Zealand Connectionz, the local partner conference - I will be speaking there at one of the sessions, about Windows Mobile 6, its new features and more.

You can find a short bio and my picture (the same used here) in the Microsoft New Zealand Parrners Conference speakers page.



New Zealand Telecommunications Market Intelligence Report

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 21-Aug-2007 21:56

From a press release received today:

Research and Markets (http://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/c66173) has announced the addition of New Zealand Telecommunications Market Intelligence Report to their offering.

Each extensive Market Intelligence Report includes the following sections: Economic, Social, Political, and Telecoms Indicators; key data presented in tabular form. Regulation; a summary/overview of the market and regulatory climate, followed by synopses of the regulator's powers and other competition or ministerial bodies to which it reports or with which it co-operates. A summary of the regulations in force, a list of differences in the types of available licences and a list of the licences issued. Market Indicators; the available data is presented in tabular form with commentary and graphics. Major Operators; contact data and company information, including ownership, background where relevant for pan-European carriers, licensed activities, scope of activities/services, recent major equipment contracts, summary of network status, references to major subsidiaries, joint ventures, and alliances. Major Manufacturers; contact data and company information including ownership, background where relevant, manufacturing & distribution activities, recent major equipment contracts, references to major subsidiaries, joint ventures, and alliances. Industry Associations; contact data and organisation information covering background where relevant, activities/objectives and references to members.

The New Zealand telecommunications market is arguably one of the most liberalised in the world, with no statutory or legal barriers to entry. Since 1989, any entity with at least 10 customers has been able to register as a network operator. However, there are still relatively few operators in the market and it seems that new entrants have found it very difficult, not to mention downright expensive, to establish network interconnection agreements with the incumbent, Telecom Corporation of New Zealand (TCNZ, or Telecom).

The most potent threat to TCNZ is TelstraClear, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Telstra of Australia. This company owns an extensive national fibre-optic backbone and has licences to build and operate wireless local loop (WLL) and local multipoint distribution service (LMDS) platforms that deliver services directly to customers, but with no legislation in place requiring the incumbent to open access to its local loop, TelstraClear has been unable to grow as fast as it might wish. The same situation now faces New Zealand's remaining new entrants and has had the effect of limiting the roll-out of new networks, including those based on broadband technologies. TelstraClear has also held licences for cellular and third-generation (3G) mobile telecommunications services, but has elected not to enter this market.

A review of the Telecommunications Act of 2001 was initiated in 2004, carried on through 2005, and culminated in the introduction to Parliament of the Telecommunications Amendment Bill in June 2006. The bill was designed to implement the Labour government's pledge to deliver faster, better broadband Internet access, as unveiled in a pre-budget telecommunications stock-take package in May.

In November 2006, a New Zealand government select committee recommended a number of changes aimed at breaking TCNZ's dominance of the telecommunications market. The committee was recommending TCNZ divide its operations into separate divisions in a bid to force the operator to give competitors equal access to its fixed lines, through the implementation of local loop unbundling. The proposed divisions are network access, wholesale and retail. There was speculation the committee would go further, recommending Telecom would have to sell the split-off operations. However, the committee report said operational separation should not include a requirement that the units be sold off as well. The bill was passed in December 2006, becoming the Telecommunications Amendment Act (No. 2) 2006.

Companies Mentioned In This Report Include:

-- TCNZ
-- TelstraClear
-- CLEAR Communications
-- TelstraSaturn
-- Walker Wireless
-- Econet Wireless
-- Vodafone
-- UnitedNetworks
-- VECTOR
-- Central and South Auckland and Counties Power
-- Vector Communications
-- Broadcast Communications Limited (BCL)
-- Transmission Holdings Limited (THL)
-- Television New Zealand (TVNZ)



Except for the bits listing "Econet Wireless" which doesn't exist anymore under this name, CLEAR Communications which doesn't exist anymore it sounds interesting (and BCL, according to Steve in the comments).

A shame Research and Markets don't provide reports for review so I can't really give any indication of the quality of this material.



Skype outage caused by Windows Update? Yeah right...

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 21-Aug-2007 09:05

Skype had a very long outage this week. Users around the world, for almost 48 hours, couldn't connect to the global telephony network that runs over Internet services.

Skype was updating its status through a blog, with nothing much more than "bear with us" messages.

People started thinking that hackers had infiltrated the network, bringing down essential servers and clients, making the restart harder.

And then comes the "official" Skype explanation for the outage, which makes no sense at all:


On Thursday, 16th August 2007, the Skype peer-to-peer network became unstable and suffered a critical disruption. The disruption was triggered by a massive restart of our users’ computers across the globe within a very short timeframe as they re-booted after receiving a routine set of patches through Windows Update.

The high number of restarts affected Skype’s network resources. This caused a flood of log-in requests, which, combined with the lack of peer-to-peer network resources, prompted a chain reaction that had a critical impact.

Normally Skype’s peer-to-peer network has an inbuilt ability to self-heal, however, this event revealed a previously unseen software bug within the network resource allocation algorithm which prevented the self-healing function from working quickly. Regrettably, as a result of this disruption, Skype was unavailable to the majority of its users for approximately two days.



Blame Microsoft Windows Update! Call the usual suspects!

But I say this is just some story Skype is seeding... Let's see why:

1.Windows Update by default runs at 3am local time. So even if all Windows-based PCs in the world would restart they would not restart all at the same time, but over a 24 hour "follow the sun" period. The entire Skype user based is spread over 24 time zones, not in a single time zone.

2.Windows Update is delivered every second Tuesday of the month, and has been for the last three years. Why it only happened now?

3.Windows Update starts on Tuesday, and counting the timezones, the last country to reach that time would be here in New Zealand, which happens to be Wednesday morning local time. If the problem happened Thursday as claimed by Skype, this was Friday morning in New Zealand, almost two days after the automatic Windows Update.

So, yes, I think the whole explanation doesn't work.

While a vast number of people use Skype for their PC-to-PC communications, some businesses are actually using the service to create a virtual presence in other markets. I wonder how much business was lost on a 48 hour outage for these companies? Will they trust Skype again?


UPDATE: Skype has posted a new blog entry with comments worth reading:


We don’t blame anyone but ourselves. The Microsoft Update patches were merely a catalyst — a trigger — for a series of events that led to the disruption of Skype, not the root cause of it. And Microsoft has been very helpful and supportive throughout.

The high number of post-update reboots affected Skype’s network resources. This caused a flood of log-in requests, which, combined with the lack of peer-to-peer network resources at the time, prompted a chain reaction that had a critical impact. The self-healing mechanisms of the P2P network upon which Skype’s software runs have worked well in the past. Simply put, every single time Skype has needed to recover from reboots that naturally accompany a routine Windows Update, there hasn’t been a problem.

Unfortunately, this time, for the first time, Skype was unable to rise to the challenge and the reasons for this were exceptional. In this instance, the day’s Skype traffic patterns, combined with the large number of reboots, revealed a previously unseen fault in the P2P network resource allocation algorithm Skype used. Consequently, the P2P network’s self-healing function didn’t work quickly enough. Skype’s peer-to-peer core was not properly tuned to cope with the load and core size changes that occurred on August 16. The reboots resulting from software patching merely served as a catalyst. This combination of factors created a situation where the self-healing needed outside intervention and assistance by our engineers.



freitasm's profile

Mauricio Freitas
Wellington
New Zealand


I live in New Zealand and my interests include mobile devices, good books, movies and food of course! 

I work for Intergen and I'm also the Geekzone admin. On Geekzone we publish news, reviews and articles on technology topics. The site also has some busy forums.

Subscribe now to my blog RSS feed or the Geekzone RSS feed.

If you want to contact me, please use this page or email me freitasm@geekzone.co.nz. Note this email is not for technical support. I don't give technical support. You can use our Geekzone Forums for community discussions on technical issues.

Here's is my full disclosure post.

If you'd like to help me keep Geekzone going, please use this Geekzone Amazon affiliate link when placing any orders on Amazon.



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