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Republic Wireless Service and LG Optimus Review

November 26th, 2011 11 comments

When I first heard of Republic Wireless a few weeks ago I just could not resist ordering a phone and service to try out.  I have long felt that the phone industry (both wired and wireless) has been devoid of innovation and ready for disruption.  At $99 for the phone and $19 a month for unlimited service (with no contract), it was worth it to me just as a technology experiment.

On their launch day the site was a bit busy and not able to place orders for some time, however, they handled it with well thought out error messages.  I eventually got though and placed an order.  They were very upfront about the fact that it may take some time to deliver the product (which was no problem for me).  One slightly annoying thing was that they did charge me for the product well before shipping it.

Once they did ship it they sent a note with tracking information which was great.  It arrived today in good order.

Initial thoughts

It came in a small box inside a padded FexEx mailer which was just perfect, nothing more needed.  It is clear though that they are still quite a young company from the first appearances.  The card telling me my phone number was hand-written.  😉  The phone and the box it came in is 100% Sprint branded, except for a sticker with the Republic logo on the box.  They clearly have not had enough time to get a hardware manufacturer to spin them devices with 100% Republic branding.

The phone

Never having seen an LG Optimus before I was very happy with what I got for $99.  Build quality seems excellent.  I like the case coating, the buttons, and just the general form factor.  It even has a camera hard button which I miss greatly on my Droid Bionic!  It does seem tiny though compared to the Bionic.  The down sides are that the screen is not huge (which makes typing noticeably more difficult), it does not have a blinking light to tell you when a message is waiting (I am constantly checking for that light on my Droid), and it does not have a camera flash.

For a $99 phone, the screen is excellent, and the processor seems fast enough.  I was very happy to see that they appear to be using the stock Android UI.  My first Android was the Droid V1 (which was pretty stock), and now I have the Droid Bionic with MotoBlur (which I am starting to hate).  Republic Wireless even seems to have avoided installing any kind of crapware on the phone whatsoever! (ironically they do have a “Dev Tools” app installed which I am wondering if it is a mistake as it does not seem like something intended for your average end user)  They don’t even have any icons setup on your home screen by default (which is a bit weird, yet somehow a bit cool.  It is a clean slate to work with.

For what it is worth, the camera quality seems pretty good from the two pictures I have taken so far.

The phone came pre-activated and ready to rock (if I remember correctly, the battery was even in it already).  The only thing it wanted was for me to attach it to a WiFi network first thing.

The service

Alright, so now for the real test- Can this thing make phone calls on WiFi?  I fire up a call to my employers auto-attendant and sure enough, it works!  Some quick tests later and I have a few initial thoughts.  The voice quality via WiFi is a bit quiet and tinny compared to calls placed on the Sprint network.  This is a bit disappointing as I have a Cisco enterprise wireless access point within 10 feet of where I was testing, and a hugely overbuilt Vyatta box as my gateway, on a 35/35 Frontier FiOS connection.  They need to take the opportunity to leverage some of the major benefits of *not* being on a cellular network (namely the fact that potentially much more bandwidth is available).  Perhaps some of this perceived quality issue is just because the codec is “different” from what I am normally used to (not necessarily worse) and maybe they can make it better by turning up the default volume or with modifying equalization settings.

So next up was a test of the two extra buttons that show up on the call screen during a WiFi call.  One of them places the call on hold.  This is novel for a cell phone, and it is an exciting indicator of features to come in the future.  When you don’t have to play in the world with the limits imposed by the cell base station manufacturers you can actually implement compelling features!  The caller I tried this with did tell me the hold music was very feint.  Perhaps customizable music could be a future feature.  😉

The other button was to transfer the call to the Cell network (presumably to easily work around the WiFi connection flaking out).  This is a great feature, but its implementation was the first indication that things are not yet as well integrated as I would like.  Pressing the button hangs up the call, and places a new call to the same person over the Sprint network.  I would have thought the smart solution here would have been either for the phone to dial out to the Republic Wireless servers via Sprint, and then have them cross connect the existing call to that phone over Sprint instead of via WiFi (i.e. this would avoid having the called party have to answer another call), or to have the Republic Wireless servers call the phone on it’s Sprint number and reconnect the in-progress call.  I am hoping they can make this more seamless in the future.

Now for the real test- What happens when I start a call on WiFi and then walk out of range of the access point?  Well, the answer is that as you might expect, the phone call does drop out for a bit, though after a few seconds, the phone automatically placed a new call outbound over Sprint to the party I had been speaking with.  I should note that anecdotally, I made it quite a ways from the house before it dropped out (I only tested one call).

The technical stuff

So being a network geek, I needed to know what this thing was going out and connecting to on the Internet.  I had noticed on calls that the latency was not that great.  I could tell that conversations were not as real time as I have come to expect on normal wireless calls.  So I tracked down the phone’s IP in the DHCP leases table, and fired up tcpdump on my Vyatta box.  It very quickly became apparent where Republic Wireless is hosted.  My phone is connecting to nodes in the AWS US-East compute zone.

Running the Republic Wireless control software in the “Cloud” makes sense for a company that is expecting potentially massive growth, however, I was shocked to discover that not just control connections were going through Amazon’s cloud.  They apparently are also running the VoIP calls through there as well.  This immediately raised eyebrows with me as I don’t feel that the Amazon the shared infrastructure environment is appropriate yet for VoIP traffic.  Perhaps I am wrong, or they have a deal with Amazon that puts them on dedicated network infrastructure, but the thing with VoIP is that it is massively sensitive to packet loss, latency, and jitter.  These things are hard enough to get right when you have dedicated hardware that is not shared.

The Amazon cloud node my phone was communicating with tonight was 85ms away (round trip) from my home (here in Oregon), under good network conditions.  This probably explains a portion of the large delay period that calls on WiFi were experiencing for me.  I think the VoIP encoding they are using is introducing more delay than I would like to see in order to reduce call dropouts due to flaky network connections.

Being a network architect, I think they need to have the phones connecting back to edge devices that are deployed on dedicated hardware in major peering cities in order to reduce latency as much as possible.  This product will live or die based on the audio quality and the seamlessness of the solution.  They should have nodes in Seattle and also in California to cover the West Coast.

One other thing that I should note is that I don’t think SMS messages are going over WiFi yet.  I suspect they are going out the normal Sprint radio as I don’t clearly see packets on the network associated with when I am sending text messages (though I may be wrong about this – I have not yet done a full protocol decode).  Perhaps that will be a future blog post.

Conclusion

All in all, I love what these guys are doing.  I am a cheerleader.  I think they are going about it the right way, but the product is still very very young…  Could I use this as my full time phone?  Probably not, as I require rock-solid communication at all times for my job.  Would I buy this for my kids?  Absolutely!

Am I seriously considering getting this for my parents that don’t currently have data phones?  Yes indeed!

I am looking forward to seeing how this works out…  $19 a month is almost too good to be true.  I wonder how long it is before these guys get bought out by one of the big boys wanting the technology (or to kill them off)?

-Eric

P.S. If anyone from Republic reads this, feel free to reach out.  I am always willing to provide constructive feedback!

Categories: Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

How to choose a colocation facility

April 7th, 2009 4 comments

Choosing a colocation facility is one of the most important decisions an IT professional can make.  It will have repercussions for years down the road, as there is generally a contract term associated, and it becomes difficult/costly to move.  At the same time, unless you are a facilities professional, it is hard to tell the difference between the quality of one facility vs. that of another without knowing the right questions to ask.  I have developed this list in the hopes that it will be a reference to folks evaluating datacenter options.  This has been written using the assumption that you need a local datacenter rather than a DR facility (which can have very different needs), however, many of the same concepts will apply.

Location

  • When it comes right down to it, there are still certain things you have to do physically in person. You can’t run a network cable through SSH or RDP. Having a datacenter close by makes a huge difference, especially when you lose remote connectivity and must go push a button in an emergency (we all have done this once or twice). In general, the newer, more high-end, and redundant your equipment is, the less you should have to touch it in person. Things are getting much better with out of band remote access controllers, but sometimes being there is worth a lot. You can’t hear that fan making funny noises from your office.
  • Does the facility have good access to transportation such as freeways and airports? Are their hotels nearby if you will have out-of-town contractors visiting? How close to logistics depots are you for your vendor-of-choices parts, i.e. Cisco, Dell, HP, etc…
  • Does the facility have adequate parking that is close to the building, does it cost money? Is it somewhere you want to leave your car in the middle of the night while you are inside working?
  • Do you have line-of-sight to the datacenter? If you can manage to get a wireless link to your datacenter this can be an extremely cost-effective option for high speed connectivity. There is something to be said for controlling your own destiny when it comes to your connectivity rather than being at the mercy of a telecom provider. Will the facility allow you to put a wireless antenna on the roof and how much will they charge?

Staffing

  • Do they have on-site staff 24×7 to respond to emergency situations, to secure the facility, and to provide access when you forget/loose your badge (or have to stop by on your way home from the gym).
  • If they do not have staff on site 24×7, what is their on-call policy? How long would it take them to respond to a power failure, a UPS exploding, a transformer catching fire in the parking lot, an Internet outage, an FM-200 fire suppression system going off, an HVAC system failing, or any other major malady (yes I have had all of these things happen to me in facilities I have worked in, and I am still waiting for the day a fire sprinkler goes off or there is a real fire in a datacenter).
  • What level of professional services can they provide? Basic remote hands (please press the power button)? More advanced troubleshooting (help diagnose a failed network switch)? Or even managed services (i.e. they take care of backups).
  • How competent are their NOC engineers, facilities folks, etc… What quality of vendors do they use to do electrical work, HVAC maintenance, network cabling? This can be hard to tell, but there are lots of small clues you can pick up on.
  • Does their staff speak English fluently and without heavy accent? It is extremely difficult to communicate on the phone with someone in a loud datacenter environment about complex technical issues when both of you are having a hard time understanding each other. This dramatically slows down the troubleshooting process and increases the chance of error.

Connectivity options

  • Do they provide Internet access themselves, or do need to contract with other providers (ala the Pittock Block)? Having a datacenter provide Internet connectivity (if they give you a reasonable rate) can be more cost effective than running your own routers, with multiple ISPs (assuming you don’t have special routing needs that require it). You do need to make sure your datacenter has good upstream providers, good quality routers, and competent staff to run them. Be careful to ensure your provider can absorb moderate sized DDoS attacks without equipment failure or running out of bandwidth. You don’t want your neighbors online dating site to come under attack and impact your Internet connectivity.
  • Are they “carrier neutral”? Will they allow you to bring in your own connectivity (Internet/WAN)? Or do they want a piece of the pie of everything (i.e. resell you everything)? Are they charging your chosen provider ridiculous fees to have “right of entry” into the building (which drives up your end user costs).
  • What fiber providers do they have available? – The more connectivity options you have available, the harder bargain you can drive with providers to get the best deal possible. If you need connectivity to many different sites, it is likely that some sites will be cheaper/better/faster to connect with one provider, and others will be cheaper/better/faster with another. A good example would be TWTelecom and Integra Telecom here in Portland Oregon. They each have extensive fiber optic networks around the metro area, but if you are trying to get from Infinity Internet to various locations around town, whichever has fiber closer to your destination will have a price/technical advantage to provide you service.
  • Who is the local exchange carrier? You might need a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line or two for paging access, etc…
  • What do they charge for cross connect fees? If you order a $300/mo T-1 are they going to charge you $100/mo cross connect fee for the two pairs of phone wire to get it to your cage/cabinet?

Power Infrastructure

  • What type of power grid design are they on? Radial or interconnected? On a Radial system (such as you would find out in the suburbs), if a car crashes into a pole, or a backhoe takes out a single conduit, power will be lost. In an interconnected system there are multiple “primary” feeds connected to multiple transformers which energize a “secondary” bus that actually feeds power to the facility. This type of design significantly reduces single points of failure and allows entire transformers to be taken offline for maintenance without service interruption.
  • Is the power grid in the area above ground or below ground? Above ground systems are susceptible to windstorms, lightning, trees, etc… Below ground systems fall prey to backhoes, horizontal boring machines, water penetration, etc… In general, below ground is going to be more reliable.
  • If on a Radial system, do they at least have multiple transformers (preferably off of separate primary feeds) even if they are not tied together on the secondary bus? Often you will see two transformers with each feeding a separate power distribution system within the datacenter.
  • Are the transformers well protected from vehicles in the parking lot?
  • What type of electrical transfer switches does the facility have to switch between main power and generator power? Are they capable of “make before break” operation when switching to the generator during test cycles or planned outages? Can they operate as “make before break” when switching back to grid power after an outage? This is important as the most likely time for a UPS to fail is during switching. If you can minimize the number of voltage-loss events it will reduce the likelihood of UPS failure.
  • How many generators does the facility have? If multiple, is their distribution system setup in such a way that you can get separate power feeds in your cage/rack that come from completely independent PDUs, UPSs, Generators, and Transformers? Just because a facility has multiple generators/UPSs/Transformers does not mean they are redundant for each other, they could just be there to increase capacity.
  • Does the facility regularly test their generators *with* load applied (either the actual datacenter load, or a test load)?
  • Has the facility designed and more importantly, *operated* their system such that a failure of one UPS/Transformer/Generator does not cause an overload on other parts of the distribution system.
  • Does the facility participate in programs that allow the power utility to remotely start the generators and switch the facility over to Generator power to reduce grid loading? While this is good for the overall health of the power grid (and possibly the environment), it can be a liability to your equipment at the datacenter since more power transfer events will be occurring.
  • How much fuel is stored on site – how many hours does that represent? Does the facility have contracts for emergency refueling services?
  • Can the generator be re-fueled easily from the road, or is it located on the roof?
  • What type of UPS systems do they have? How old are they? How often are the batteries tested and replaced? Can they take their UPS offline for maintenance without impacting customer power?
  • Can they provide you custom power feeds for equipment such as large Storage Area Networks or high power blade enclosures? (i.e. you need a 3 phase 208 volt 30 amp circuit)

Cooling

  • Do they use many direct expansion cooling units, or do they have a water/glycol loop with a cooling tower? Or do they even use chilled water? Each of these has it’s pros and cons, however, the multiple direct expansion model is very simple and redundant in that you likely have many individual units (it is not as energy efficient though). The trick is controlling the HVAC units to not “fight” each other, causing short-cycling on the compressors.
  • Are the cooling units designed for datacenter usage (running 24x7x365), with the ability to control humidity within reasonable levels, or are they made for office cooling applications with expected usage of 10 hours a day?
  • If the facility uses cooling towers for evaporative cooling processes, do they have on-site water storage to provide water during utility outages (such as after an earthquake). Are all parts of the cooling loop system redundant (including the control system).
  • Does the facility maintain and enforce hot/cold aisle design? This is becoming critical as power densities increase and power efficiency becomes critical.
  • Does the facility have an outside air exchange system to provide “free” cooling during the months of the year that outside air is of appropriate temperatures? While good for the environment, you must be careful about the outside air’s humidity as well as the dust/pollen that could come in with outside air. There is a dramatic difference between servers that have been in a quality datacenter for a few years, vs. ones with poor HVAC systems for a few years. I have removed servers from facilities before that have not gotten a speck of dust on them and others that are caked in black dust (depending on the facility they were in).
  • Is the entire cooling system on a single generator, or is it spread across multiple units for redundancy?

Cages/Racks

  • Does the facility provide Cages? Cabinets?  Or both?  These days most everything will fit in standard square hole cabinets, however, in some cases if you buy large enough equipment it might come with its own racks or as a freestanding unit that cannot go in cabinets provided by the facility. If you go with a cage you must carefully plan how much space you are going to need ahead of time. Adding additional cabinets as needed can be an effective growth strategy, though you must plan for network and SAN cabling between them.
  • If you get a cage (or just custom cabinets) make sure to agree upon who will bolt down your cabinets and how much it will cost.  This can be particularly tricky on raised floors to properly secure them in the event of an earthquake.  Any work done must be properly done to not throw dust into the air and to mitigate any potentially harmful vibrations that could impact running equipment.
  • One gotcha I have run into before is that some facilities cabinets are not deep enough for modern servers (specifically some Dell servers). I also have been shocked to find many facilities that still are leasing ancient cabinets that are telco-style with solid doors on them. Modern equipment requires front-to-back airflow, not bottom-to-top as was the old telco style. Also note that most network equipment is still uses side-to-side airflow and is best suited in two-post telecom racks (where possible) rather than four post server cabinets.
  • When selecting a colo facility make sure to specify exactly what type of cabinet you are expecting in the contract if they have multiple types available.
  • Modern cabinets have built in mounting holes/brackets for vertical mount PDU’s which are becoming the standard.  This allows you to use very short (think 2 foot) power cables to attach servers without excess slack.  They also do not take up usable rack space.
  • Modern cabinets should also have a way to cleanly route cables vertically (think about power cables, network cables, fiber SAN cables, etc…)
  • Does the facility provide PDU’s in the cabinets for you, or are you responsible to provide them yourself?  It is critical that your PDU’s have power meter displays on them as power in a datacenter is typically very expensive and so you want to load them up as much as possible for peak cost efficiency, while not risking tripping a circuit breaker (never load a circuit more than 80% it’s rated capacity – which means 16 amps on a 20 amp circuit, or 24 amps on a 30 amp circuit).  When plugging dual power supply servers into different circuits, ensure that in the event one circuit blows the other can handle the entire load without blowing.
  • What type of power plugs will they be delivering in your rack/cage?  I recommend locking plugs like an L5-20 or L5-30 to plug your PDU’s into (even though a NEMA recepticle can handle the current capacity in 20 amp circuits).  Also common these days is using 208 volt 30 amp circuits with an L6-30 receptacle.  Most everything manufactured in the last 5 years is capable of accepting 208 volt power.  Using the higher voltage allows you to have more equipment in a cabinet with fewer circuits which also means less PDU’s.

Fire suppression

  • Is the structure made of metal and concrete, or of wood?
  • Does it have traditional “wet-pipe” sprinklers, “dry-pipe” sprinklers, or “pre-action” sprinkers”? Or even none at all? If an electrician hits a sprinkler head with a ladder in either a “wet-pipe” or “dry-pipe” system, it will immediately release large amounts of water until the fire department shows up to turn it off. Pre-action systems require both a smoke sensing system to alarm, as well as heat setting off a sprinkler head in order to let water flow.
  • What type of fire detection system does the facility have? Standard smoke sensors, and/or VESDA sensors?
  • Does the facility have an inert gas fire suppression system such as FM-200, Inergen, or Halon? An inert gas system will deploy if two smoke sensors are deployed, and hopefully extinguish the fire before it can set off a water based system (typically still required to meet fire code). In reality though, I have never seen modern computer equipment really catch fire. Most of it does not burn very well (as long as you don’t store cardboard in the datacenter).
  • Who are your neighbors within the building? Are any of them high risk?
  • How old is the building’s fire suppression system? You might be in a suite within the building that has the latest and greatest fire control, but if the rest of the building has a simple fire panel from 1970 and no sprinklers, it could still burn to the ground. Upgrades to fire control systems are generally not required unless the building owner does a major renovation.

Physical facility

  • What is the risk of water damage to your equipment? Are you right below a poorly maintained roof? Are there non-pre-action sprinklers above you? Is there a domestic water pipe above your cage? Bathroom drains from the tenant above? Storm drain pipes from the roof? Condensate drains from the HVAC system? Cooling loop pipes? Note that if a fire sprinkler goes off several floors up it can seep down through cracks between floors you never knew existed into your equipment.
  • Is the facility located in a flood plain? Is it below ground level? There are places in Portland that have water mains large enough to cause localized flooding if they break.
  • Does the building have a convenient loading dock for receiving equipment? What is the largest equipment that will fit into the building and up the elevator? This is a problem in many older buildings.
  • How large is the space you are in (by volume) compared to the equipment load? If cooling was lost (say because the fire alarm inadvertently went off which shuts down all HVAC), how much thermal buffer is there to keep the temperature from rising too much until the system is reset?
  • Is there a grid of ceiling tiles above you? If so, it will probably fall down and create dust in an earthquake. I would rather see all of the piping and mechanical systems on the ceiling anyway rather than let them be hid above a ceiling grid.
  • Is the facility on a slab floor or raised floor? It is easier to effectively bolt things down to a slab floor for seismic purposes, but a raised floor can also conveniently provide space for electrical power and cables. It is becoming less feasible for cooling purposes however, since density is increasing so much.
  • What is the seismic rating of the facility? How much will it shake your equipment in an earthquake and will the building be damaged to the point that it is unsafe to continue operation?
  • Do they have requirements about what types of equipment you can put in the datacenter? i.e. if in a traditional telco facility certain ratings may be required.
  • Is the facility well kept and “clean”?  This can tell you a lot about the quality of the facility.  It is hard to tell if proper maintenance is being done at scheduled intervals on their power equipment, but if a facility can not simply keep cables managed properly it is a likely sign that they are skipping other non-visible things as well.

Creature comforts

  • Does the facility have comfortable areas for you to work while on-site (i.e. a conference room) or do you have to spend all your time on the cold/loud datacenter floor?
  • Do they provide “crash carts” (i.e. a portable keyboard, monitor, mouse) to utilize if you don’t have your own KVMs?
  • Do they have vending machines or refreshments when you need that late night pick-me-up?
  • Will they accept deliveries for you? Do they have someone at the facility during business hours? I find this to be *very* important.
  • How good is the cell phone coverage for the specific provider(s) you care about?
  • Do they have a guest wireless network you can jump on while you are working there to easily get Internet access without having to provide it yourself?

Security

  • How do they control access to the facility? Is it manned, or unmanned? If they have an access control system does it have biometric features?
  • Do they have security cameras? How long is the footage kept for?

Pricing

  • How much do they charge you per cabinet, or per square foot of space?
  • How much does power cost? Is it per provisioned circuit, or based on actual usage? What is their pricing model? Note that it is more and more common to need 208 volt circuits, or three phase circuits with modern blade enclosures and SANs. It is no longer just increments of 20 amp 110v circuits.
  • Will they provide you second power feeds at a reduced price if you are only going to be using them for failover? Note that these second feeds may cost them UPS, Generator, etc… capacity they must plan for, however, you won’t be utilizing electricity from them (which they must pay the utility company for) or loading their total feed capacity from the utility since they are just for redundancy.
  • Can you get price guarantees for future expansion (power costs, cabinet costs, etc…)?
  • Does the facility want to sell you completely managed services and as such makes colocation costs un-tenable?
  • Do they provide some amount of basic remote hands service hours each month? How much do they charge for professional services?
  • Does the facility provide service-level-agreements (SLAs) that have teeth? Frankly, I don’t put much faith in SLAs since usually they only involve a credit for the period of time service is unavailable. This generally is nothing in comparison the amount of money you lose when your datacenter goes down or your costs in man-hours to bring it back up.

Switching Costs

  • Once you move into a facility there can be significant (if not astronomical) switching costs. They may offer you a smoking deal to get you in the door, and then make it up by charging higher-than-market-rate for add on services down the road. Realize that you are inevitably likely to need more power down the road, and more bandwidth. Also realize that bandwidth costs fall steadily so you don’t want to get locked in for long term rates on telecommunications circuits. It is also possible in the long term for your needs to go down in the future as virtualization gets more popular, “cloud computing” becomes a reality, and computers become more efficient.
  • Contracts are normally in place to protect the provider, but they can also protect you. If you get a smoking deal on something, locking it in for a term commitment can be a good idea. It is reasonable for a provider to require a contract term as they do have significant capital and sales costs that they need to cover. Also, realize that the average lifespan of a datacenter is not all that long these days. A datacenter built 7 years ago has nowhere near the cooling capacity required in a modern datacenter.
  • Think about your growth pattern. You don’t want to be paying ahead of time for service you don’t need/use, but you also don’t want to get hit for huge incremental costs to add cabinets/power down the road. Contracts with “first right of refusal” clauses built into them (on additional space/capacity) are common.
  • Think about how difficult it will be for you to pick up and move at a later date. Some of the most “sticky” items are storage area networks. It might be easy to move a few servers at a time, but if you are all dependent on a single Storage Array, everything connected to it must move at once.
  • Telecommunication circuits also increase your “stickiness”. They are generally under term commitments and can be difficult to coordinate a move at a specific time. If you have a circuit from XO and move to a facility that does not have XO fiber, you might have to switch providers, or pay someone else for the local loop.
  • If you are purchasing Internet connectivity from your datacenter you are most likely being assigned IP addresses from their address space. When you move or change providers you will need to re-number. Depending on your network design and use cases, this might be easy, or an extremely difficult task.

Final Words

While there are numerous factors to consider, the reality is that there are likely a number of providers in town that can meet your needs successfully.  The reliability level of Portland’s power grid and of datacenter equipment is getting so high that we are really “chasing nines” to get ever so slightly more uptime (for dramatically higher cost).  For most organizations, being in a datacenter with only a single generator provides plenty of uptime.  Is that extra 0.009% uptime really worth it to go from “four nines” to “five nines”?  That is an increase of 47 minutes of uptime.  Is that worth doubling your costs?

Perhaps one of the most important aspects to your decision is the relationship you build with the owners, management, and staff of your colocation facility.  You want to have as much of a “partnership” as possible, and not merely a buyer/seller relationship.  Finding a facility with a long history of treating their customers well will increase your chances of success.

If you have any comments/questions feel free to post below, or shoot me an email.

-Eric

Categories: Colocation, Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

Review of Cradlepoint CTR500 EVDO Router

March 25th, 2009 1 comment

This evening I got an opportunity to test out a Cradlepoint CTR500 EVDO router that a friend of mine just got.  This device can accept an ExpressCard or USB data card (or both at once!) from a long list of different providers.  I tried it out with two Verizon EVDO cards, a Verizon (Novatel) V740 ExpressCard, and a USB727 card in the USB port.

Cradlepoint CTR500

Cradlepoint CTR500

I am very impressed.  My friend said it was incredibly simple to setup.  I only had limited time to run tests, but everything I checked out worked well.  You can check out their website for the full details on features, but here are the most interesting to me:

  • This model of the device is AC powered with a 5v adaptor and also comes with a 12v adaptor for your car.
  • It has a built in wireless access point to share Internet connectivity out to other PC’s.
  • There is a physical switch on the side to turn off the wireless access point.
  • It has an Ethernet jack on it that can be used to directly attach your PC, or a network switch if you want to connect multiple PC’s to provide them Internet.  The Ethernet jack can also be used to hook to some other upstream ISP and share that connection out via the built in wireless access point.
  • There is a lock switch to keep the ExpressCard from sliding out of the device.
  • There are a number of LED’s on the top to indicate status on each of the connection methodologies.
  • There is an antenna port so that you can connect an external WiFi antenna (802.11b/g) – by default it uses an internal antenna

The web interface to the device was nice and snappy.  I did not dive deep into the features, but it looked pretty extensive (with really useful features like custom DHCP settings, rather than stupid consumer features).

We had it setup to use both the ExpressCard and USB modem simultaneously, which is interesting, as it must choose which connection to route traffic out on a “per flow basis” (i.e. a TCP session or UDP exchange).  This means some connections you make might get NAT’d out from one IP address, and others will come from a different IP.  This could be problematic with some applications.

The average ping time to my favorite IP address was 150ms, which is about the same as my internal EVDO card.  All of the tests I ran were with an Ethernet cable directly plugged into my laptop from the CTR500.  I did not actually test the wireless access point in it since I was mostly interested with it’s EVDO performance and not the latency added by 802.11.

I ran a number of speedtests, and while the numbers were not very impressive, they were the same as the Verizon EVDO card built into my Dell D630 laptop (which I also tested in the same location).  The Verizon 1900mhz signal is fairly weak at my house where I ran the test (one bar according to my internal card).  I did not have the right adaptor to be able to plug my 3 watt cellular amplifier into the EVDO cards which would have probably sped it up.

Cradlepoint CTR500 EVDO Router Integra Speedtest

Cradlepoint CTR500 EVDO Router Integra Speedtest

I have to say, thus far I am extremely impressed with the device.  The features are great, the fit and finish is excellent, it is fast and easy to use, and the price is right!  The worst things I can say about it are that some apps might get confused with the dual card configuration (but this is not the routers fault, they implemented it the only way you could accomplish this feature), and the device did get somewhat warm during testing with two EVDO cards sucking power.

I am not sure that I personally have a need for this device today, but I know a number of people who could use one!

-Eric

Categories: Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

Switching Providers With Cisco CDMA 3G HWIC

March 24th, 2009 1 comment

A while back I ran across info on Cisco’s site about their new HWIC-3G-CDMA and HWIC-3G-GSM cards that allow you to connect a Cisco router to the Internet through 3G cell phone networks!  I am glad to see this since I have on occasion wanted a *reliable* way to share my broadband card connection with a small group of computers (i.e. at a tradeshow, etc…).  I have shared broadband cards out through my laptop before but it is a pain, and my general feeling is that the consumer grade “routers” that you can buy now are generally poor quality.

This last week I noticed they have seperate HWIC-3G-CDMA-V and HWIC-3G-CDMA-S versions of the CDMA card that are specific to Verizon and Sprint.  I find this annoying, as if I am going to spend $850 (MSRP) on one of these cards I don’t want to be vendor locked to Sprint or Verizon.  From a chipset standpoint, these cards are using exactly the same technology.

This is particularly problematic as wireless service is so location dependant.  Say you are deploying a bunch of remote site routers across the country and using a 3G card for backup connectivity.  You can’t have any idea at the time you order/ship the devices as to which wireless provider will have the strongest signal available in a given area (i.e. Verizon might have EVDO Rev. A in an area that Sprint only has 1xRTT).

Furthermore, you might decide for cost reasons that you want to move from one provider to another, but the cost of buying new WIC’s makes that untenable.  Can you imagine if you had to buy a different T-1 WIC for Verizon vs. Qwest?

To find out if this was a permanent thing, or if they could be re-flashed over to the other provider, I asked one of my Cisco engineers.  Below is their response which I thought was worth sharing:

Short answer “No”. There is a lot of carrier specific information that gets bundled into the firmware for these modems and the only option is to swap the modems out. The carriers and probably the modem vendors have tools that are able to change the modem parameters to work from one carrier to the other, but we do not have that expertise.

I also asked if the cards required special data plans, or if the “standard” $59.99 plans would work.

In terms of pricing – the SPs have a special pricing plan for these modems that get plugged into Enterprise class networks. Information can be obtained on each of their websites.”

I have heard from reliable sources though that with Verizon you can put them on normal $59.99 data plans and they work just fine.  You just do an ESN swap to get that device activated.  Naturally, they won’t provide any kind of support for your device, but it does work.  Also note that on Verizon if you go over 5 gigs of transfer in a month they will throttle you to 200Kbps.

I am *sure* that with the right equipment you could “make it happen”.  Maybe some day we can hope Cisco releases a tool that let’s you do it.  So I wonder when the WiMax version of the card is available?  That would be cool since I do live in Portland, OR (one of the WiMax test markets).

-Eric

Categories: Cisco, Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

Dell Wireless 5720 Verizon EVDO GPS

March 17th, 2009 No comments

So I was playing poker this evening with a friend of mine (who is also an IT professional) and he mentioned that his built in Dell EVDO card (the Verizon version) had GPS capabilities.  I was not aware of this and so I asked some additional questions, as it would be nice to have a GPS in my laptop when using Google Earth, etc…  As it turned out he has the exact same card as I do, except his is in an “E” series laptop rather than my D-630.  His card did not even have an active service account but it still worked.

Device Properties

Device Properties

My friends Dell Mobile Broadband Utility had an extra button that mine did not for “GPS Status”!  I was a bit miffed since I had just done a complete laptop rebuild including all the latest and greatest drivers and Dell Wireless software.  We compared all our driver and application versions and it turned out I actually had a slightly newer build number software and equivalent driver versions.

Dell Mobile Broadband Card Utility

I pulled out my trusty friend google and I came across this.  I flipped the registy setting as described in the article and re-launched the Dell Mobile Broadband Utility.  Just as expected a couple of new com port drivers were installed and the GPS button appeared!

GPS Status

GPS Status

I have no idea why this was enabled on his, but not mine, but I am glad turning it on was so simple!  Now I need to find some good apps to make use of this.  Google Earth 5.0 seems to sort of work with it, but it does not always show me the dot of where I am (it does know where I am however as it centers the view properly).

P.S. Here are the software and driver versions I am running:

Dell Mobile Broadband Card Utility Version

Dell Mobile Broadband Card Utility Version

-Eric

Categories: Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

Review of ClearWire WiMax in Portland

March 17th, 2009 No comments

I got a friend of mine to bring over his ClearWire WiMax CPE (Customer Premise Equipment) box this evening so that I could play with it.  I put it through some basic tests, but I did not have as long to play with it as I would have liked.  A few key points are below:

  • I was testing the fixed wireless version, not the mobile one.  His CPE (Customer Premise Equipment) device was manufactured by Motorola.
  • I had five bars of signal out of five at my house (dropping to 4 briefly).  There is at least one ClearWire tower within a few blocks of my house and I tested it on my dining room table near a large window.  They are deployed in 2.5ghz spectrum so it does not penetrate all that well.
  • Ping times to a known host increased dramatically during a speedtest – I don’t think it is doing fair-queueing (on either upload or download or both…)
  • The speedtest’s I ran came out at three megabit download exactly (which is what his service plan is for), upload was more variable, though it was clearly bumping up against the 768k subscribed limit.
  • I did not like the web interface to the admin gui on the Motorola box, it is pretty cheesy and does not have many options (and some of the ones it does have are disabled so the customer can’t mess with them).
  • Traceroute’s out to the Internet did not work (they died at the Motorola 192.168.15.1 IP), though my friend said he has seen them work before on a couple of people’s ClearWire connection, so I am not sure if this is something that has changed recently, or if something weird is up with my laptop (traceroutes on my other Internet connections are fine though).
  • Ping times to my office averaged 105ms, compared to ping times across my 802.11g to my FiOS connection and on to my office which are about 62ms (most of that is probably the 802.11g).  On my Verizon EVDO card the ping times are around 155ms.
  • I confirmed that it does support 1500 byte mtu’s (no PPPoE reduced frame size BS)
  • The CPE device is in NAT mode and you can’t turn it off!  Your machine can’t sit directly out on the Internet (although you can map ports through).  The box is supposed to support UPnP dynamic translations, but my friends XBox can’t seem to make them work so he had to manually map ports.
  • Anecdotally, my friend reports that VoIP in his XBox games sucks from time to time.  He is in an apartment complex with not the greatest signal however.

Here is a traceroute from my hosting account down in California to the IP address the CPE device was assigned.  I am unsure how many router hops are in their network beyond where this timed out since traceroute appears to be blocked (or maybe that was timing out at the CPE device’s WAN IP, I can’t be sure).

                             My traceroute  [v0.71]
riddler (0.0.0.0)                                      Sun Mar 15 19:46:03 2009
Keys:  Help   Display mode   Restart statistics   Order of fields   quit
                                       Packets               Pings
 Host                                Loss%   Snt   Last   Avg  Best  Wrst StDev
 1. ip-67-205-28-1.dreamhost.com      3.8%    26    0.4  10.5   0.4 159.9  33.1
 2. ge-0-1-0.405.ar1.LAX3.gblx.net    0.0%    26   31.2   3.8   0.6  31.2   7.6
 3. 162.97.117.186                    0.0%    26   26.9  28.9  26.8  69.4   8.5
 4. 64-13-49-225.war.clearwire-dns.n  0.0%    26   59.8  29.8  26.9  59.8   8.4
 5. 64.13.115.162                     0.0%    26   27.4  33.5  27.4  89.2  14.2
 6. ???

Below is a screenshot of one SpeedTest I ran.  I find that Integra Telecom has some fast test servers local here in Portland (though odds are you are bouncing off Seattle or California to get to them).

ClearWire Integra Speedtest

ClearWire Integra Speedtest

If I get some time later with his ClearWire box I will do some more in-depth testing.  I would also like to test the mobile version of ClearWire.  I am sure I will get my hands on one of the USB dongles at some point soon.  😉

My overall feeling is that the (fixed base station) version of ClearWire WiMax in Portland is faster than Verizon’s EVDO, and has better latency characteristics than it.  I would certainly not prefer it over my Verizon FiOS however, and I would even venture to say that I might choose a Cable Modem or DSL over the WiMax (assuming I was close enough to the Central Office to get good DSL from a provider that is not oversubscribed).

-Eric

Categories: Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

Debug Mode on Dell Verizon Wireless Data Card

March 17th, 2009 No comments

So if you are like me and want to actually know what the signal strength and noise levels are of your connection, rather than just how many “bars” some marketing guy has determined should be displayed, you need to know how to get access to the RF engineering screens on whatever device you use.

In the case of my Dell Wireless 5720 card build into my Latitude D630 the trick is to launch the Dell Mobile Broadband Card Utility and type ##debug in when at the main screen.  This will bring up a Debug Info screen with all sorts of interesting information (most of which I don’t have a clue what it is).

Dell Verizon Wireless 5720 Debug

Dell Verizon Wireless 5720 Debug

I could swear this Dell utility is similar to one I have used before by Sierra Wireless.  I am wondering if that is just because the base program is now written by Novatel and Sierra uses their chipsets?

-Eric

Categories: Network, Telecom, Wireless Tags:

Gigabit Point-to-point Wireless

March 7th, 2009 No comments

For a couple years now I have been aware of a startup company called BridgeWave that has come out with some very cool radios.  These devices provide 100 megabit or gigabit point-to-point connectivity using the (unlicensed) 60 ghz band or (licensed) 80 ghz band.  With ranges from half a mile to 6 miles (depending on the unit), these radios are a great building-to-building bridge solution for LAN’s, or last mile access solution for Internet.

If you have line-of-sight between two places you need connectivity, and can get roof rights on both, these can provide a very cost-effective solution.  Their newest product the SLE100 provides full-duplex 100 megabit connectivity with an MSRP of only $9,995.  This unit is also powered by PoE so the only cable you need to run to the units is a CAT5 cable.

For those that have security requirements, they now have models (or add-on features) to enable link layer AES encryption.

There are of course pro’s and con’s to using wireless, but if engineered and installed properly they can beat the availablity of landline based service (i.e. it is hard to put a backhoe through your wireless beam).

P.S.  I also have good things to say about a company called Freewire Broadbandwho is a local reseller and installer of BridgeWave radios.  I have not personally used them, but their staff is very knowledgeable and friendly.

-Eric

Categories: Wireless Tags: