Thursday, August 28, 2008

Now that's a helluva storm

Whenever I run into a new transplant to Phoenix I always have to warn them about the weather. Monsoon season storms here are legendary.

A couple of weeks ago I met a woman who had just moved here from Cali. I warned her about the storms, and she replied, "oh those storms we had a few weeks ago? Those weren't so bad."

I told her she hadn't seen anything yet.

Current radar for Phoenix:

I haven't seen a storm this bad in years. High winds, lightning, absolute downpour, and hail. I got drenched in the minute and a half it took me to get the flag down and bring it in. I've lived here 23 out of my 27 years, and I know this kind of storm. Whole neighborhoods will lose electricity, ancient trees will break free and destroy houses and vehicles, idiots will try to cross usually bone dry washes in their 4x4s and have to be rescued or just get carried away by the floods. This kind of storm kills people annually, usually with the help of their own stupidity.

Chris and John are at the other side of the Phoenix metro area attending a concert. Those big red splotches are moving towards them. Word from Chris is that the storm is raging on all around them while Judas Priest plays, which I'm sure is an awesome experience.

I just hope they manage to get to the house without running into the idiots on the road.


You Got Another Thing Coming Tonight

JohnOC and I are going to see the ULTIMATE METAL SHOW EVER tonight.

Some VERY good advice

Straight up, NEVER talk to any investigator for any reason, even if you think it will help you. You are wrong.

If you don't speak, most of the time, they can't convict you (guilty or innocent).

If you DO speak, most of the time, they WILL convict you (guilty or innocent).

EVERYONE is guilty of something. EVERYONE. Talk, and they will find it. Don't talk, and they may find something, they may not; but talk and they WILL find SOMETHING... ANYTHING to convict you of.

I'll say this flat out, I believe that every person in this country is guilty of a federal or state level felony. It is almost impossible not to be, because of the way the laws are written.

If a prosecutor wants to convict you, they're going to find SOMETHING.

DON'T SAY A WORD except, "I'm sorry, I will not answer any questions except my name without an attorney".

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I'd say that about covers it, yeah


Note to Pepsi product management:


No, seriously, they don't.

They also don't want strawberry melon and ginseng....

Ok, I'll grant you some MIGHT be interested in raspberry citrus mountain dew (I have a feelign the 'dew fanbase has some crossover with the raspberry lime ricky fan base), but YOU CAN LEAVE OFF THE FUCKING GINSENG.

What exactly am I speaking of?

Mountain dew has expanded its flavor line to elevntyjillon, with new:

Mountain Dew Voltage (Raspberry Citrus)
Mountain Dew Revolution (Wild Berry)
Mountain Dew Supernova (Strawberry Melon)

Let me tell you what they taste like...

Imagine a melted popsicle... now add some corn syrup; oh and grind up an aspirin in there... and then pour in a pixie stick....

Yeah that's about right.

All the worlds gear queers spontaneously orgasm...

Behold, the high cap mag for your high cap mags:

MUCH more on this at Mil-Spec Monkey.

Honestly, I don't think I'd trust my life to the thing in a firefight; I certainly have reliability concerns; but I bet threegunners everywhere are drooling right now.

Also, it's clearly significantly bulkier than the three mags it holds... in fact I'd guess its total bulk is around that of six mags (though not the weight).

Yes, there is at least some speed advantage there, and it's nice to be able to always index your hand back to the same place; but I'd bet that rangerplates or magpuls cut that speed advantage way down; and they add very little to the bulk of your kit.

The reloading motion from that indexed position is probably better in cramped quarters, but it's probably worse prone, so it kinda cancels out.

Oh and can you say battle rattle?

I bet it'd be spectacular vehicle mounted in a firing position on a bird, or light armor etc...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Build or Buy updated for 2008

'Round last Christmas I wrote this piece:
"So, I'm giving computers as gifts to a half dozen people this year; and every time I've mentioned it, I've had someone ask for computer advice.

So, continuing on my gadgetary thrust for the end of the year, lets talk about computers.

Now, the first question is always "build or buy"; by which I mean do you buy a pre-built system from a major vendor, or do you build your own.

Generally speaking, this is a two part question:

1. Does it make sense technically
2. Does it make sense in terms of value"
Earlier today, a reader asked me to update the article for this year. Since I've got a couple of system building related tech articles simmering, I figured, why not.

So, the first thing is, re-read the 2007 article; because those two big questions (and the smaller ones interspersed), and the general advice I give there are still completely relevant.

Also, surprisingly, most of what I wrote in terms of technical detail and product selection still applies. This last year hasn't seen much in the way of fundamental changes in the market; though there have been some nice price drops.

If you are waiting for a major change in overall performance, you're going to have to wait til the middle of next year, when the Intel Nehalem processors (now renamed Core i7) go mainstream.

Where we HAVE seen major movement is in price, and specifically price to performance ratio for memory and graphics.

The memory market saw a huge amount of overcapacity this year, cutting basic memory prices in half, and making DDR3 semi-affordable (if you want to pay for the motherboard to go with it of course.

Graphics saw the biggest change in hardware this year, with a new generation of graphics cards appearing on shelves in the last three months; presenting nearly double the performance of the last generations top of the line, at the same price (or equal performance at half the price).

On the lowest end, the near thin client level hardware offered by Asus, MSI, HP, and others at the under $500 price point have completely flipped the market on its head.

If all you are doing is email, web surfing, and basic word processing and spreadsheets, these $400-$600 machines are EXCELLENT. They have so little to go wrong, that they are near perfect grandma PCs.

Also, and I think this is probably the biggest change in PCs in a long time, and certainly the biggest change in software since windows 95; is that Vista 64 bit is now a very valid choice for both general purpose computing and gaming.

Software and driver support is finally to the point where I am recommending either XP pro (if you don't want Vista), or Vista 64 Premium.

So, I'm going to do things a bit differently this time around. last year, I recommended three sample configurations, a value box, a mid range box, and a god box. This year, I'm going to recommend mix and match components that I think represent the best value for money for each of the basic functions.

Also, I want to renew my recommendation from last year that if you aren't going to spend at least $800, you should just buy one of the better factory systems when they go on sale.

Right now, you can get a Core 2 quad 6600 system with 4 gigs of RAM, 2x 500 gig hard drives, a low end video card and a video capture/TV tuner card for $600 to $800 on sale. You simply cannot build a box to that spec, for that much money.

The reason to build your own system, is to get BETTER than the factory; not to save money; because you cannot build cheaper than HP, Dell, or Gateway. Pick the products that meet your needs better, and make your life easier as a system builder.

Alright lets break it down.

1. Case:

This year, I'm making a STRONG recommendation, that you spend a little extra money on the case. I'm tired of noisy, hard to work with cases; and extra money spent here is really giving you value.

I'm going to recommend a few cases that I think are well made, easy to work with, and represent a good value.

CoolerMaster Cosmos - several models between $190 and $290
Coolermaster RC690 - $85 without PSU, or $150 with a decent 550 watt
Antec Mini P180 - $129 to $159
Antec P182 - about $110

In my personal opinion, the CoolerMaster Cosmos is the best full size personal computer case on the market today. It has the best cooling of any quiet case I've ever seen, and it's the second quietest case I've ever used (that wasn't a special silencer case).

The QUIETEST case I've ever used that wasn't a special silencer case is the Antec Mini P180. It is also one of the best ventilated, and best organized cases I've ever used in terms of disk options, and cable management.

2. PSU:

It's hard to make specific power supply recommendations, because every system has different needs, but again this year I'm going to recommend that you spend a little extra money on some features to make your life easier.

From now on I don't want to build another system that doesn't have a modular power supply. They make cable management so much easier, and keep your case so much cooler and neater, that they are worth the extra $25 to $50 they cost over an equivalently sized non-modular power supply.

Size wise, I'm going to recommend that you don't go below 450 watts, and you don't go above 650 watts unless you are putting more than 4 hard drives and 2 video cards in a box.

As to brands, I'm a big fan of the modular models from Thermaltake, Antecs higher end line, CoolerMasters higher end line, PC Power and Cooling, OCZ, and Corsair.

You're looking at around $150 for a 550 watt modular power supply.

3. Motherboard:

Right now, it's hard to find a bad motherboard from Asus, Abit, Gigabyte, EVGA, or MSI.

Personally, I would take any one of those brands, with any model board that meets your basic needs. I do recommend that you choose a motherboard with as many SATA ports as possible; and I personally like to have more than one PCIe x16 slot, to use either SLI, or for higher performance IO cards.

I would stay away from Foxconn, DFI, ECS, PcChips, Jetway, Elitegroup, or Biostar personally. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes not; and none of them have support worth a damn.

You're looking at $150 for a very good single processor motherboard with a lot of good features, and no SLI. Add $25 to $50 for SLI support, all the way up to about $250 for the top of the line single processor motherboards.

Oh, and get some good onboard sound; because with good onboard sound there is really no need to spend a slot on a soundcard.

Oh and at this point I don't think a multi cpu box makes sense for home users from a value perspective. Even most professional graphics applications wont see much advantage from two quad core cpus instead of one.

4. CPU:

Firstly, AMD is in trouble at the moment. They aren't offering any CPU that presents a more compelling value to the enthusiast user than Intel.

As of today, there are a couple conspicuous and outstanding values from the Intel side.

Core 2 Duo 7200 - This new 45nm low power consumption dual core can be had for $120 on sale with a decent CPU cooler. It's an automatic overclock to 3 ghz, and can esily hit 3.2 and even 3.4 ghz.

Core 2 Quad 6600 - This is still the quad core value leader, with the effortless overclock to 3.2ghz on any motherboard, and prices as low as $180; you still can't beat it, 19 months (and $650 cheaper) after it was released.

Honestly, I don't think you should even consider any other CPU right now. You cannot get higher performance per dollar, or for that matter significantly higher performance overall, no matter how many dollars you spend.

5. Memory:

Pretty simple picture right now really. Buy either 2, or 4, 2 gig sticks from Crucial, Kingston, Mushkin, Corsair, or OCZ. 2 sticks if you're going 32 bit, 4 sticks if you're going 64 bit.

Premium 2 gig DDR2 sticks are running from $40 to $60 on sale these days; and theres no reason to bother with anything cheaper.

Now, you have to decide if you want to go to DDR3 yet or not. If you pick out a motherboard that supports it, it gives you a BIG boost in memory performance, though overall you'll only see about a 10% inprovement; and it's double the memory cost.

Personally... I still say skip it.

6. Video:

This is the interesting one...

Both Nvidia, and ATI/AMD released their next generation cards in the last two months, and both are excellent.

Right now each chipset maker has two price points set.

Nvidia has their GTX 260, from between $250 and $399 (depending on memory and extras), and the GTX 280 at $399 to $599 (again depending on memory and extras).

ATI has their absolute value leading Radeon HD4850 at $180 to $230; and their 4870 at $280 to $320.

Both vendors are also still putting out dual GPU cards (though nvidia hasn't put out a dual 260 or 280 yet); but I don't think they present a good value. Also, all of the cards mentioned above support multi-card (SLI or crossfire); but again I don't think those configurations present good value.

The Nvidia offerings are more expensive, but they are also higher performance. Unfortunately, their performance per dollar isn't nearly as good as the ATI cards, which are frankly spectacular. You are getting twice the performance per dollar as last years mid range and top end cards.

Honestly, I think all four options present good value, and you just have to decide whether you want the best price, or the best performance.

If you don't feel like spending the extra cash for the next gen cards, the Nvidia 8800gt 512 is still the best bargain in the video card market (as it has been since it was released), at a price as low as $125.

7. Hard drives:

Simple question, how much storage do you need?

With 500 gig 7200 rpm 32mb cache hard drives as cheap as $80 and 1tb drives as low as $150, you can pretty much do whatever you want here.

8. Optical drives:

There's no point in not having at least a dual DVD burner setup at this point; and I'd recommend going SATA with everything.

Also, at $150 to add blu-ray reading capability, there is no reason not to.

The only real question is, do you want a blu-ray burner or not. Personally, at as low as $269, I think it's worth it; but you may not.
So, right now, if you want to better the factory boxes, you're looking at something like the following:

Case: Coolermaster RC690 - $160 with PSU
PSU: Included
Motherboard: any of the top tier manufacturers boards - $150
Processor: Core 2 Duo 7200 - $120
Memory: 2x 2 gig DDR2 stick - $80
Video: Radeon HD 4850 - $180
Hard Drive: 1x 500 gig drive - $80
Optical Drives: 2x SATA DVD burners, one of which is a blu-ray reader - $200

Total: $960

For that $960 you're going to get a better PC than 99% of all factory machines; and at less than half the cost of a factory "gaming" PC.

If you want to build your maximum performance with value, your looking at something like this:

Case: CoolerMaster Cosmos - $200
PSU: Any of the modular PSUs in the $150 price range will do it - $150
Motherboard: any of the top tier manufacturers boards with multi PCIe slots- $200
Processor: Core 2 Quad 6600 - $180
Memory: 4x 2 gig DDR2 stick - $160
Video: Nividia GTX280 - $420
Hard Drive: 1x 500 gig drive, plus 2x 1tb drive in a software RAID - $380
Optical Drives: 2x SATA DVD burners, one of which is a blu-ray writer - $300

Total: $2080

Seriously, the only way you're going to get more performance out of a home PC, is to double your video card (an additional $420), push your mobo up to $650 (+ $450), and your CPU up to $3000 (+ $2800) with a dual skulltrail platform... and even then, you're only going to see maybe a 35% boost for your additional $3670.

Nearly triple the total price for 35%performance boost? No thanks.

The only thing good about that price, is that it's about $2000 less than you'd pay a major manufacturer for the privilege of buying an equivalent system from them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

17 feet high and rising

I've said before, we have a lot more stuff than storage space. Or house isn't exactly large, but it's not exactly small either; and other than bedroom closets, we have very little inbuilt storage (1 broom closet, 1 utility closet, kitchen cabinets and that's it).

Our biggest storage problem is books. Together, Mel and I have about 2000 books (that's after seriously aggressive pruning, sending perhaps half of our books to donation and/or used book stores), several hundred dvds, several hundred more CDs, and a substantial home theater setup

Several hundred of our books are in our bedroom, my office, and her office; but the majority of them are currently shelved two deep in out living room; or boxed up due to lack of room.

We've decided that the only way to deal with the living room properly, is putting up custom builtins. Thankfully I've done it before, and have the tools to do it right.

That's going to be a 'nother post... or more likely series of posts; and it's going to be a while from now, since the materials are going to run at least a grand, and honestly there are higher priorities right now.

So, my main task this weekend was to reorganize the storage in our bedroom; no small task. Actually, the only room in my house with enough storage is my bedroom; which is amazing given how small it is (12x14 with attached 4x8 3/4 bath).

We've got a 5 foot high 3 foot wide 5 drawer bureau; a six foot long, 8 drawer, counter height vanity dresser; a 5 foot high, 2 foot wide, 5 drawer chest that fits in between our his and hers closets; the aforementioned two, 7 foot wide (one full wall of our 12x14 bedroom) 2.5ft deep his and hers closets; a night stand with two VERY large drawers that act as my desk drawers; and full length underbed storage accessible on one side of our queen bed (it's backed into into a corner which is why only one side is accessible)

Other than in the living room, mostly we use steel wire shelving. It isn't the BEST looking stuff, but it's sturdy, and it can hold a hell of a lot.

So as of Sunday, I've got a 3ft wide seven tier (14" deep) unit for hardcovers, and 2x 2 foot wide 4 tier units for paperbacks.

I have a 4 foot long counter height desk in my bedroom, and the 4 tier shelves are set up as it's kick panel; with the seven tier unit on the wall perpendicular.

...No, there are no blank walls left in my house that don't have shelving or a drawer unit on them.

Anyway, before this weekend, we didn't have near enough shelving in our bedroom to hold our entire "to read" pile (well... mostly MY to read pile. Mels is like a dozen books); and books to be read were in a bunch of amazon boxes etc... so I couldn't get a good count, and sometimes couldn't find one of the books when I wanted to read it.

That is no longer a problem. In fact with the new 7 tier unit in place, we have enough shelving in the bedroom for about twice as many books as we did before.

Of course this means that now I have a good count of my pile...

... whoooo boy....

(that's a trimmed down export from our excellent catalog software, Readerware)

175 books in the to read pile... 17 linear feet of books, with a collective page count of about 61,000.

Now, I read fast. In fact, I can average over a page a minute when I'm into it... but even at my best rate of around 100 pages an hour, that would be about 610 hours of nonstop reading.

If I could manage two hours a day of recreational book reading (vs the 12+ hours of reading a day I already do between work and websites)... which is at least somewhat realistic; it would take me about a year of reading.

... and it's only getting bigger. They're releasing good books faster than I can read them.

On the one hand, great, I'll never run out of reading material. On the other hand, seems like I'll never get to some of those books I want to read.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Three words on Obamassiah and Biden




Stunningly Piercing Insight


So, the question was asked, how much does hosting a website like cost?

Well, thankfully, Combat Controller is piggybacking our hosting on his colo account, and we're using open source software,so it isn't costing us anything but time; but generally speaking for a site like ours, you'd expect a minimum of $20 to a maximum of about $80 a month for hosting charges, including bandwidth.

At least from a reputable company that actually charges what a service is worth, and then actually provides that level of services.

The followup question was of course "why does it cost that much, when companies like dreamhost sell high bandwidth hosting for $8 a month".

Well... yes and no.

Application services hosting is an interesting business. When most people think of web hosting, they think there's some server somewhere chugging out your pages, just for you.

In reality, all application service hosting (web services are just one of the applications you can host) is virtualized; meaning in this case, that there are many different applications, and sites, running from a single piece of hardware.

Of course it's not like one box can serve an infinite number of applications; so you have to carefully balance how many applications you provision on a given set of computing resources, and a given bandwidth and storage allocation, against how much you charge; to both remain competitive, and make a profit.

It's a tricky balancing act really, and it's one that unfortunately most companies do badly.

Part of this balancing act, is the concept of overselling; which means selling more resources than you actually have (it's also called oversubscribing, which is the same thing, except without the selling part).

This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's the industry standard; because most applications don't need 100% power, all the time. In fact most only need 10% power or less 90% of the time, and 100% power 10% of the time.

I use the term "power" there advisedly, because oversubscribing isn't just part of the hosting business, and it isn't a rare thing; service providers in every area oversubscribe or oversell. Phone companies don't have enough circuits for every customer to call all at once, power companies don't produce enough power for every household to draw 200 amps all at once etc...

Every hosting provider oversubscribes; some are more honest about it, some less.

Ok, so how does oversubscription work exactly? I mean how can you sell four people 100% power on the same computer? Didn't Mel Brooks write a movie about a play about that kind of thing.. and then a play about a movie... Ok, it's complicated...

Actually, it's pretty simple. Let's say you have 1 cpu, and a particular application may need 1 full cpu worth of power when it's doing heavy processing; however, you know that it only needs that much power 25% of the time or less. If you have four other applications like that, so long as they don't need the CPU all at the same time, you can sell each of them 1 cpus worth of power; and everyone will GET one CPU worth of power.

At that point you've oversold by 4 to 1, but each application is still getting 100% of their needs met, and they're paying MUCH less than they would if you had to provision a full cpu for each of them; just to have that CPU sit idle 75% of the time.

Now remember, every hosting business and every ISP do this, for all but the busiest sites they host.

Only when a customer pays for a true dedicated server will they ever NOT be virtualized, and only very rarely will virtualized hosts not be oversold.

Oh and in my experience, most customer who pay for a dedicated server don't actually need one; and many customer that DO need them try to economize by NOT paying for one.

When you first try to explain all of this to customers, they often feel a sense of outrage, or like they are being cheated. What they don't realize is just how expensive it is to host applications, and that without oversubscription, they would be paying FAR more for their services.

Oversubscription isn't cheating, it's just how the game is played.

I play this game for a living; except the game I play has higher stakes than small scale commercial web hosting, because instead of doing it for web hosts, I do it for business critical applications in a bank (I'm the chief architect for one of the major divisions of one of the worlds top 10 banks). If we have outages, we can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a minute in revenue, and receive fines in the millions.

Because of this, though we do virtualize many applications, we don't oversubscribe anything above a tier 3 application (there are five tiers), and we do a minimum oversubscription on anything lower. No more than 2.5 to 1 on anything other than low load internal web pages, ever.

Of course we have a LOT of low load internal web pages (thousands), and to save server costs, we oversubscribe them as far as we can get away with.

There's no way we could ever make money doing that as a business; because the market pressures are insane. Every competitor in the hosting market is being pressured to offer more and more services at lower and lower prices; and they could never oversell at such a low ratio and still stay in business.

In this business you have whats called the 60/40 rule. You try and load your hardware up to 40% sustained utilization at least 60% of the time, and 60% peak utilization no more than 40% of the time. You peak to 100% actually, but you only peak for a few seconds or a minute at a time, and it gets averaged out over 15 minute increments, so it comes out to 60%.

When you hit 60% sustained utilization (more than 60% utilized for more than 40% of the time) it's time to upgrade, because you don't have enough capacity to maintain consistent quality of service for the applications on those systems.

So long as you obey the 60/40 rule, and make intelligent decisions about how to allocate applications across your hardware, you should be OK. In a shared web hosting environment you would be amazed at how many relatively busy websites can be hosted on a single server without hitting that 40% mark never mind the 60% mark.

It may seem odd to someone not familair with the business, that you could theoretically host hundreds of applications (usually small web pages) on a single server, and every site will work very well; but as long as you keep to the 60/40 rule, it really works.

It's when you start trying to stretch beyond 60/40 that you start running into problems.

So let's look at what the numbers really are like shall we?

The bread and butter building block of hosting services is the 1u or 2u mid-range rack server. They're generally built with 2 processors, and most of them now have 4 cores each processor (basically 8 processors total), and these days 8 or 16gb of RAM (you try to make it 2gb of RAM per core these days).

They take up just 1.75"x19"x32" (or 3.5" instead of 1.75 depending); which are industry standard rack units; and generally use less than 500 watts of power at normal load (though you have to account for twice that for power and cooling because you have two PSUs that COULD draw 500 each.)

Generally speaking, the servers cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 each (with a hardware service contract) if you buy them in bulk. Let's presume it's $3000 (a good price from a top tier vendor to a high volume customer), and you're running on the industry standard depreciation cycle of 36 months; for a cost of about $85 a month

It is entirely possible to fit several THOUSAND websites on a single mid priced server; though a few dozen small to medium sites, or 4-8 larger sites is more common. The resources provisioned for each site are called a virtual host.

Basically a standard "large" virtualhost will have 1 or 2 full cpus worth of resources available to it at peak, and the associated memory and I/O. You can push a lot of data with a 2 cpu 4 gig server.

Actually, it's MUCH better if you use a pair of servers, both of which are managed to never be at more than 40% capacity; so if one fails it can take all the load for the other.

Better hosting companies will offer that service, or simply build it in; so they don't have downtime and contract penalties. It's a lot less expensive to build services that don't break as easily, and fail gracefully when they do; than to try and save cost by building cheap, to minimum standards.

Spreading the load across 4 servers is even better, because a single failure will have a lower impact with the load spread across three additional systems than one, and because you could sustain multiple failures and still maintain service at reduced performance.

Importantly, you aren't really adding capacity, and you aren't adding additional hardware cost; because you're not buying more hardware than you would have if you were provisioning to the same hardware utilization level on single servers. What you're doing by clustering is adding resiliency and improved availability.

If you architect it properly though, there is no reason why you can't fit 4-8 very large very busy web sites, for which you charge at least $80, and up to $200 a month in hosting fees if you're a good outfit; on that one server... Or even better 32 sites, at $80 a month each virtual host; for 32 sites on a 4 server cluster, generating $2560 a month in revenue, and costing $340 a month in raw hardware costs.

Of course the raw hardware costs are only a small fraction of the total costs of providing hosting.

The hosting business has such tight margins, that they tend to operate at a 60/80 rule, or even an 80/60 80/80, or 80/90 rule, which seriously strains systems... but even then, so long as you keep on top of things, you should be alright (well.. not really with the 80/90... but if you're clustered and REALLY on top of things, you can usually get away with it).

Funny thing is, if you actually are really on top of things, it's pretty easy to manage very highly utilized servers. The real problems come in when you're overselling disk space and bandwidth; but again, if you manage it intelligently, you can still maintain quality of service.

I think you can see where I'm going with this.

There is no industry standard for provisioning storage; because needs vary WILDLY. Generally speaking though, we presume a MONTHLY cost of about $4 per gigabyte minimum, for datacenter storage (it can easily get up over $40 a gig for high performance highly available storage with high performance archive and long retention times etc...).

Why so high when you can buy a 1tb hard drive at your local electronics store for $200?

...Because enterprise class storage doesn't use 1tb consumer grade drives, it uses 146gb or 320gb enterprise class drives that cost $300-400 each in bulk; and you provision it in 8 drive RAID groups, that have an available space of about 2tb (after the filesystem is put on. The raw space is 2560 gigs,) for $3200 raw storage cost. Then you have to put those drives in something; and enterprise class storage arrays are not cheap. Figure $32,000 minimum (plus disk) for an array that can hold 6 of those RAID groups. Then you need to set up the storage network to get the storage to your servers, and that's not cheap either, at a minimum about $16,000 for enough ports to fill up the array.

That's $67,200 for 12 terabytes, not $2400; and a cost of about $5.60 a gig (not including cabling or backup).

You can cut that price a bit by using SAS or SATA drives instead of standard SCSI, and by using larger arrays (up to a point the cost per slot goes down. Get beyond that point, it doubles, then starts going down again); and get it down to around $4 a gig, especially now that 1tb SAS drives are becoming available; but most aren't using them yet.

So yeah, $4 a gig is a hard minimum right now; unless you want to go to dumb storage (storage that doesnt have intelligent management and caching), and use consumer grade drives. It's a bad idea, but some will try and save on costs by doing so.

Above, I noted that it is cheaper to build resilient systems than it is to fix non-resilient systems when they break. This is one of the prime examples. Companies wouldn't pay for enterprise storage if it werent saving them money in the long run.

So, if we presume each of our very busy 32 sites is using 5GB (most likely a drastic overestimation, but that is a common allocation for a low priced hosting account) then it would cost us $20 per site per month just for the storage; or about $640 per month. That's without overselling.

The industry standard for overselling bandwidth for shared services while maintaining quality of service is 7 to 1 for median usage, 4 to 1 for heavy usage, and 12 to 1 for light usage.

That means that generally, if you sell 7 customers a maximum bandwidth of 3 megabit per second, and a bandwidth cap of 500 gigabytes a month; you only need to provision 3 megabit and 500 gigabytes; not 21 megabits and 3500 gigabytes.

Bandwidth costs can vary wildly; but as a general planning number, it currently cost about $250 a month to provide that level of service (raw service charges).

Let's get back to our heavily used 32 virtual host cluster, and say we can oversell them at 4-1. They each want 3 megabits per second of maximum bandwidth, and 1 terabyte a month of transfer. It costs us about $1000 a month to provide enough bandwidth to oversell those 32 virtual servers at 4 to 1 on 3mbit; so about $30 per host.

Now, let's add up the costs so far, to provide excellent quality of service and oversell within industry standards. It's about $2000 a month aggregate RAW COST, not including staffing, overhead, or profit, just for those 32 virtual hosts.

The general IT industry standard admin to server ratio for web servers (real servers not virtual hosts) is 32 to 1 (hosting providers tend to operated at a higher ratio though); and a basic level full time server admin costs you a minimum of $5000 a month. Then you need at least two NOC monkeys for that same server load, at a minimum of about $3000 a month each. So that's $11,000 a month in raw staffing. Industry standard overhead calculation is to double the staffing cost (its a minimum of 1.6 times up to a maximum of about 2.4 so double is a good average) so $22,000 a month to admin 32 servers; and we're admining 4 servers, so our portion of that cost is $2750.

So, our total incremental cost to provide those 32 high utilization virtual hosts, at 3gbps maximum bandwidth, 1TB transfer, and 5gb storage; at industry standard QOS for overselling and staffing, is $4750; or just under $150 a month per virtual host.

Presuming we take $80 a month for them, we're losing $70 a month.

This is why good hosting companies charge so much more than the $10 a month places; because services cost money, and a good host will give you the service you pay for.

Ok, let's say we stretch it out, go to the 80/60 rule and provision 48 virtual servers on the same hardware; then go to a minimum QOS oversell of 12 to 1; and we oversell the storage at 10 to 1 (unfortunately typical).

Our hardware cost remains the same at $340 a month , our storage costs go down to about $100 a month, we go to $500 a month on bandwidth, and our staffing cost remains the same at $2750... $3690, divided by 48 is $76.88.

Wow, we can just about cover it at $80 a month, with a meager $3.12 a month profit each on 48 accounts... and of course we haven't even discussed the marketing costs of getting those accounts in the first place; which is typically 5 times the monthly cost of provisioning the customer, so actually your first five months for that customer cost you double. At that rate, it will take 3 years for you to see a profit on just that one customer.

Remember when I said the hosting business runs on very tight margins?

If as a hosting provider you choose to use the 80/60 rule, you're already stretching your QOS minimums. If you then choose to provision all your customers at the 12 to 1 level, you're stretching things further.

..but, you're still being ethical, because there is a reasonable expectation that you will be able to maintain quality of service across all your customers; providing you have a top notch NOC and datacenter staff, and keep on top of capacity and maintenance.

Now, look at a company like Dreamhost (I chose them because they are one of the few companies that admit to overselling). They are theoretically selling that same level of service, only they are selling at at $8 a month, not $80 a month.

Obviously that is impossible. They cannot possibly provide the minimum QOS that they are selling. However, for $8 a month, who in their right mind would expect them to.

Basically, they are lying to the customer, because everyone else competing in the market is lying to the customer. The customer pretends to believe he can get $80 a month worth of service for $8 a month, and the host pretends to sell it to him.

In order to make any money at all on that price, they need to do some crazy things.

Note, I won't say these exact numbers apply to dreamhost in particular, because I don't know what their provisioning looks like; I'm just using their pricing example to show you how it has to be done to reach that price.

They will sell HUNDREDS of sites on a single server, and generally they don't cluster for their lower tier offerings (they do for higher tier, higher usage sites etc...). For high utilization systems, instead of running at 8 to one, they run at 24 to 1.

For bandwidth and storage, they follow the same 24 to 1 ratio.

Most importantly, they deliberately keep staff levels to a minimum, to cut overhead. Staffing costs are by far the largest proportion of the cost of providing service, so instead of the industry standard 32 to 1, they run at 256 to 1.

So, for our original 32 virtual hosts, this brings their cost down to $113 a month for the raw hardware, $167 for bandwidth, $27 for storage, and about $115 per month for staffing.

That's still $13.75 a month per virtual host.

So for every customer that they have to provision even that degraded quality of service for, they're losing $6 a month.

The only way they are able to sustain this model, is because they have tens of thousand of accounts at $8 a month, literally 90% (or more) of which never use more than one 12,000th of a server (less than 1 minute of CPU time per day on an 8 core box); and require essentially zero admin time. For those sites, they put a couple hundred of them on a box, not just 24; they use 1/100th the bandwidth of the larger virtual hosts, do 1/100th the transfer, and rarely use more than about 10mb of storage.

Basically they take the possible but not very ethical 80/60 level I describe above, and they multiply the loading by 5 (or more).

Again, I should emphasize; for the vast majority of their users, this is just fine; and they are completely satisfied, because they are paying a very low price, and getting their needs met.

The hosts cost to provision those 90% customer is about $3 a month; and those 90% are perfectly happy, because they think they're getting enterprise class service and in effect they do because their needs are never more than 1/100th that of a "real" server.

So if 9 out 10 of your accounts costs you $3, the tenth costs you $13.75 and you take in $80 for the whole lot... hey, that's a decent profit. You're averaging $4 a month profit across all your accounts... which is a little bit more than the company who stretches it out to 80/60, that I described above (they're making $3.12 an account).

However, in order to sustain that model, no account can EVER exceed the usage needed to ensure the 24-1 oversell, and you have to keep that 9/10 ratio of high utilization to low. Otherwise, you're sunk.

So, if you're a home user, that $8 a month is attractive, because in all likelihood you'll never use 1% of what you're theoretically paying for never mind 10%.

But if you're a business, or a web site used by hundreds or thousands of people, and you want to actually get anywhere near what you're theoretically paying for; you have to actually pay for what it costs, plus a little bit extra to allow the company to make a profit. That means that $80 hosting account is the minimum real world, for an application that needs a guaranteed quality of service.

'Course thanks to better virtualization technologies, and higher density servers, we're putting four times as much computing power into the same physical space, and at the same cost, as we were 2 years ago. Labor costs aren't going down, so it's not a 75% reduction; but two years from now, we might be able to provision that same quality of service for $60 instead of $80.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Pints a Pound the World 'Round

... Actually a pint's more like about £2 in the UK (a reader writes it's more like £2.70 where he is)

Would that it were only so here in the U.S.

A friend of mine from the UK, currently living in rural Spain, was wondering how much we paid for drink here.

A sad story really.

In general, we pay MUCH more for drink than you do in Europe and the U.K.

When I lived in Ireland, a pint of Guinness was cheaper than a pint of coke in most bars (and of course no free refills). Here the reverse is very definitely true.

For a British pint (570ml), of a half decent beer, we'll pay somewhere from $5 to $8 in most bars or restaurants. Prices vary widely, and a true imperial pint is rare.

We get 16oz pints in the U.S. which are 100ml (3-1/4 oz) less than imperial; and are typically $4.50 to $6.50. A lot of places will serve a 20oz or 22oz mugs for $1 or $2 more than their 16oz price.

However, we usually don't even get pints. Generally, beer is served by the glass (350ml) here, and in most places a domestic glass is $3.50 to $5.50, and an import or microbrew will be $1 more; though cheaper bars may serve as low as $2.50 for domestics. Often the cheapest beer in the bar will be sold at $1 a glass specials on certain days and certain hours etc...

Wine is generally sold by the 750ml bottle here, or by the 175ml glass (and often you won't even get that much. Many bars try to pour their wine to get six glasses per bottle, at 125ml per glass) and the cheapest acceptable (seriously I really mean the cheapest that are at all drinkable) wines will typically run around $15 per bottle, or $4 per glass in a bar... and that's an $8 bottle in the shop.

Wines that would sell for $15 in the shop would typically be sold for between $20 and $25 in the bar or restaurant; and at $6 a glass; and the prices only get worse from there.

Hard liquor is the worst here though. First, although the world standard shot is 35ml (1.25oz), legally a shot is defined as 29.72ml (1oz)... though at least most bars serve the 1.25oz version when you are ordering a neat shot, they may not when you order a mixed drink.

You'll find that most mixed drinks only get a pony (1oz) in a restaurant; especially in restaurants that have those auto drink mixing systems (so the bartenders can't steal).

Also, in many places when you ask for a double (what should be 2oz if using the legal measure, or 2.5 oz for full measure) you'll get a jigger (1.5oz) or a double pony (2oz); though at least they'll generally only charge you for the jigger or double pony, not twice price of a full shot.

You'll find the same practice in almost ALL mixed drinks in restaurants, and unfortunately in many bars. Ask for a double, or if the recipe calls for a double, and you'll get a jigger.

A 750ml bottle of hard liquor that costs $25 in the store, will be sold for $45-55 in the bar or restaurant; or as $4 to $6 dollar shots. Counting wastage, a bar SHOULD only count on being able to get 18 shots from a bottle, or at the very most 20; but many bars and restaurants (again, especially restaurants) have a policy mandating 22 shots (which is actually less than 35ml). I've even heard of places that mandate 24 shots.

Yes, $4 to $6 for a 35ml OR LESS shot, from a 750ml bottle that costs $25 at retail. 22 shots at $6 a shot... $132 from a $25 bottle..... it's nearly criminal.

This is why they say restaurants live and die by their bar by the way. Food keeps the lights on and the bar pays the salaries.

What's sad though is that even at those markups, most bars and restaurants can't make any damn money; even if they're full all the time. 80% of all restaurants close within 2 years of opening.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How to feed your PoodleShooter

So, I've talked a LOT about what types of ammunition to use in ARs, what bullets work best, what barrel twist works with what ammo... why the AR exist in the first place and uses the ammo that it does...

Somehow I never managed to get around to talking much about magazines; except to note they are the single biggest point of failure for the AR platform, and the first thing to consider when things go wrong.

Well they ARE. I harp on it for a reason.

Somehow though I never managed to talk about what magazines to buy, or not to buy, and how to pick'em.

Well, a friend of mine was heading to the gunshow this past weekend, and he asked for advice on mags; so I wrote this up for him, and I thought I'd share it with the rest of you.

Ok, let's break it down.

First things first, don't buy mags at the gun show (or at the gun shop for that matter), unless they're a spectacular bargain... or a reasonable price, but new in the plastic with the original manufacturers imprint on them, and/or in a sealed crate with a trademark you can read.

I don't trust mags bought at gunshows very much, and unfortunately most gunshops are only one step above that... after all most of the guys selling dodgy, mismarked, clearly fraudulent crap mags at gunshows, are gunshops.

Honestly, if they aren't 100% quality and cheaper than $20 don't bother, just order from Brownells. In fact I'd say cheaper than $15; and that's for brand new.

Second, what to buy and what to avoid.

Let's piss some people off shall we?

For aluminum commercial mags, Brownells mags are excellent; and are available straight from Brownells with an upgraded follower, spring and baseplate for $2-$6 extra. They are both the best value in commercial magazines, and the best quality. I recommend them over all other commercial magazines.

Bushmasters all metal mags are good, but avoid the ones with the plastic baseplates (they are reliable, but can't be rebuilt).

HK mags are also excellent, and actually worth a couple extra bucks, but not the $40+ that they charge for them (remember "HK, because you suck, and we hate you"). In that same vein, Colt commercial mags are good, but they try to charge a large premium for them just because of the name, and they aren't worth it.

C-products mags are generally very good, and they are the only manufacturer I know who sells new mag bodies only, in bulk, to the general public (convenient if you want to use your own spring, baseplate, and follower). They're also VERY reasonably priced.

Cammenga makes a new "speedloader" type magazine, that actually splits apart (the front of the mag slides down), to let you rapidly load them. Reports on them are good so far; but they're only a couple years old and havent seen much hard use yet. I'd be worried about fine dust and the like jamming them up... but for a range mag it seems like a great idea.

The Beta C-mag from Betaco is a heck of a beast. It's the only reliable drum magazine for the AR (and most other 5.56 rifles, and the M14 and others by the by) on the market, and it's great fun... but I don't know that I'd trust my life to one exclusively. Also, REALLY expensive.

That said, I do have one, and I love it. If you can afford one, it's the perfect companion for a heavy barreled AR on a bipod. You can just sit their and pick targets off all day long.

Aluminum USGI mags... a mixed bunch to be honest. First of all, frauds abound. Second, honestly, some of them just aren't that great, even though they are "mil spec".

Also it is VERY IMPORTANT to remember that a lot of the USGI magazines that end up on the commercial market are there because they were rejected by the Gov't (it's illegal to sell rejected USGI mags, but it happens all the time anyway). They may be generally good with a small flaw, or they may be unreliable POSes.

I have never seen Brownells USGI mags for sale commercially, but as I said, they are the best.

Sabre are excellent (their commercial and gov't contract mags are the same).

Bushmaster USGI mags are excellent (better than their commercial).

FN mags are generally good, but their springs are iffy on their USGI mags. I personally have seen failures in their springs, baseplates tabs, and feed lips to a higher extent than other manufacturers; but anecdote != data.

Colt mil-spec mags, if real, are excellent, as are Okay industries/OK, Universal Industries, Simmonds Precision, Knights armament, and original Armalite. They should be, they are all from the same manufacturer (OK). Again though, watch out because frauds are everywhere (usually made in Taiwan or Singapore).

LaBelle mags are excellent, in fact probably the best older USGI mags (Brownells and HK are the best commercial, and better than LaBelle by a small amount). DPMS labeled mags are from LaBelle, as are newer Armalite, Knights, Stoner, Smith and Wesson, General Stamping, Eagle Arms (not Eagle or American Eagle) and some others.

If your AR is from a reputable manufacturer other than Bushmaster, FN, Colt, or Sabre (who all make their own) and it came with an own brand stamped magazine; it's probably a LaBelle... or rather NOW a "General Stamping" as they bought LaBelle some years ago; though I believe they continue to use BOTH imprints.

Adventure Arms, Adventure Line, Center Industries and Parsons, are all also the same manufacturer, and pretty good.

Take this as you will, but as of today, there are only three certified providers of contract USGI AR magazines, Brownells, Center Industries, and OK industries.

Everybody elses aluminum mags , I'd stay away from.

Sanchez mags are not very good. Cooper mags are horrible.

Remember, all legitimate USGI mags, and U.S. commercial mags will have the manufacturer clearly stamped on the baseplate; however with used mags, it's entirely likely the baseplate won't reflect the original manufacturer of the other components, as things get mixed around with cleanign etc...

The Singapore and UK steel mags are excellent if you don't mind the weight, but the lips can gall and bind on steel ammo. Other then c-products, I haven't seen any good commercial steel mags.

For polymer mags, Magpuls pmags are excellent. Thermold and Orlite mags are also very good. In any polymer mag though (even new ones), be very careful about cracks and warping.

The REAL israeli milspec polymer (Orlite, but may not be labled as such) and milspec metal mags are very good, but fakes are everywhere. Same thing for the South African mags.

USA mags, Triple K mags, Promags, National, Eagle, American Eagle, (but not Eagle Arms) and American Magazine are all horrible.

Any magazine with a finish other than than phosphated (parkerized), teflon coated, or epoxy coated, should be avoided as well; as no matter what the markings are, they are either cheap foreign made crap, refinished by god knows who concealing god knows what problems, or a fake.

For ANY of the above magazine, commercial or USGI, I'd change the followers to magpul followers. They're about $2 a piece. You can also buy Brownells mags with them installed already, and of course all magpul mags have them. Oh and HK has a direct ripoff of the magpul follower that they refused to license (they do that sort of thing).

What about used, or mag kits?

You can pick up mags with perfectly good bodies but with the older black follower design very cheap, as people read "green follower" on the net, and all of a sudden black follower mags are anathema. Well, the green follower isn't very good either, and for $2 you can change the follower to magpul, and get a real bargain in the process.

All USGI mag springs prior to the late 80s are suspect. I change them out for Wolff and Brownells springs as a matter of course. I would also recommend replacing the springs and followers of any used magazines you by as a matter of course (you just don't know where they've been so to speak).

Magpul and Brownells both sell rebuild kits that include a new spring and follower for around $5. Baseplates are cheap. If you can get a deal on good USGI, or good qaulity commercial (you'll have to look for proofmarks) mag bodies, you might want to consider it.

What to look for (and hopefully not find).

When you're evaluating a mag, the first place to look is the feed lips. They should be free of ripples, dings, gouges, nicks or burrs, and they should be even and smooth.

The feed lips are the second most common failure point on the AR mags behind the springs. A bad spring is fixable though; if you have bad feedlips, you've got a bad mag.

Then look at the base plate and see if it's secure. Are the body tabs good, does the plate move without too much binding, but not so loosely that it will vibrate out? Does the base plate bend and stay bent (bad. The mag is either old and abused, or a forgery. The plate should spring back)? Is there any discoloration, cracks, or burrs in the tabs, and do the tabs bend easily under finger pressure (they shouldn't)?

Use something to depress the follower as far as it will go. Make sure you're pressing down in the center as you push, and check to make sure it doesn't bind excessively (a very little bit is normal), or tilt excessively (again a little bit is normal).

Check the entire body for dings or gouges. Even if the finish is worn off it could be a good mag, so long as the body is sound.

Check the welds. They should be clean, neat, and evenly spaced. There should be a minimum of 4 of them front and back, and as many as 7 (different manufacturers at different times, have used different numbers of welds). Some earlier (or cheaper made) USGI and commercial magazines only had 3 welds and should be avoided. Current Milspec is 6 welds, front and back.

Try to twist the top and base of the mag in different directions; you shouldn't be able to or at least not to any significant degree. If you can, the welds are bad, the aluminum sheet is too thin, the aluminum alloy used is wrong, or it hasn't been properly heat treated (or possibly not at all).

Remember, AR mags are essentially disposable.

Excepting HK (remember, HK because you suck and we hate you) and the Beta-C mag, they sell for $10 to $20, and a slight structural defect is not worth trying to fix or work around.

If you start thinking of them as something other than disposable, you'll be tempted to keep them when they malfunction.

The HK mags are a special case here, in that HK may charge more for them, but they really take the disposable aspect seriously. HK mags are designed to be absolutely reliable, for 100 reloads. After that, HK doesn't care; and they have done their metallurgy to reflect this. They are known to develop feeding problems with extended use because of spring wear, and mag lip deformation.

AR mags always have been designed to be disposable, and you should treat them as such. You can replace springs and followers, but once the feed lips or the baseplate tabs go wonky, they cannot be recovered. You MAY use them as a range mag, but I just crushem or use them as targets.

Most "unreliable" ARs (from reputable manufacturers anyway) are just fine; they're just using bad mags (and usually bad ammo too. Cheap out on one thing, they're probably cheaping out on another).

It's very cathartic packing a bad magazine full of reactive explosives and blowing it up. Just stay at least 50 yards away, those aluminum bits can fly pretty far.

Oh and just on a note of personal preference, may I suggest 20 round mags over 30 rounders. I personally think they work better in general, and they're a lot easier to deal with at the range,
prone, on the bench etc... I prefer the straight bodied ones myself.

For more, and more detailed info, check out Troys Mag FAQ.

A Little Busy Today...

The data piece is going to have to wait a few hours. In the mean time, I've got a short piece on AR mags.

It would be funny if it weren't frighteningly true

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Get Yourself Connected - Voice

In the first post of this series, I said I would split my posts on voice and data communications, because both are quite large subjects.

In this post we're going to cover voice comms while travelling.

First, remember our priorities:
  1. Voice comms, in and out, local, national, and international, mobile and fixed
  2. Medium speed data while mobile
  3. High speed data periodically
  4. Mobile device data
  5. Laptop data

Now, I have set my top priority as local, national, and international voice communications. That focuses my choices quite a lot; though only narrowing them a little bit.

First Priorities, then Technologies.

As I said in the introduction, "The first thing you need to know, is that the technologies available to you depend on where you're starting from, and where you're traveling to. There are a lot of possibilities here, and they're pretty much dictated by your geography."

Well... there is one major exception to that geography rule...

Satellite communications.

Ok, so first, let's limit the scope of the more detailed parts of this discussion to areas where local and mobile communications infrastructure is in place. If you're going to be traveling where there are no phone lines and no terrestrial mobile networks, you have to go to either long range radio, or satellite comms; and the detail of all that is a MUCH larger topic than I want to cover right now. We're just going to skim it.

Let me just say that in general, commercially available personal satellite communications are expensive, bulky, slow, poor quality, complicated, and unreliable.

Most of the above factors but expense can be mitigated to some degree or another with sufficient application of cash of course; but that just makes an already expensive proposition moreso.

Sattelite terminals (phones) can cost well over $1000 for even simple models, and actual usage charges can vary from as little as under $1 per minute, to as much as $15 per minute.

... but... if you really need it, you really need it; and cost becomes secondary.

Generally speaking Inmarsat is the most reliable service by far; but you pay for it. It has been around for 30 years, and it works pretty much everywhere except the poles, and in deep valleys and tunnels. It is also the most expensive major service, uses the most expensive bulkiest, equipment, and is either the slowest network (at "normal" prices), or the fastest, but most expensive network (at 5-10 times the price).

Generally speaking Iridium is in the middle for both cost and reliability; but their equipment is, frankly, crap. It is TOUGH crap though. Their availability has been slightly spotty over time, their call quality is all over the map, their data netowrking is slow and expensive, and on any given day there is a fair chance that they will just go out of business with no warning. Also, they are not maintaining their satellite constellation, nor are they adding new capacity, so they are at this point a dead end service.

Globalstar provides an infuriatingly inconsistent service. Although they provide excellent coverage geographically, as well as relatively high speed networking; their satellites are unreliable (they lofted a bad batch of S-band amplifiers in their primary constellation), and the band and encoding they are using seems to be impacted more seriously by environmental factors. So when it works, it works great, but service is simply unavailable, or seriously degraded, far more frequently than other networks.

Globalstar has three things going for them though: They are the cheapest by far (including the cheapest equipment), they offer the highest speed data networking at relatively reasonable rates (there are faster networks, they are just WAY more expensive), and they are the only major satellite phone company launching more satellites and adding capacity to their infrastructure (InMarSat is launching replacement capacity, but not expanding).

Theoretically Globalstars next full constellation of satellites will be in place in 2010, and that will eliminate the problems they've been having. Unfortunately, the rockets they're using for their satellite launches keep blowing up; so, who knows.

The other major curveball, and certainly the most irritating geographic restricting factor is...

Japan and Korea.

Let's get Japan and the ROK out of the way right away; because the answer there is simple, but irritating.

As an international traveller, you have very few options. Japan and the ROK use a proprietary CDMA based technology that isn't used anywhere else in the world; and up until recently no carrier offered any other type of service.

Generally speaking, if you travel to Japan, you will need to buy or rent a local phone. If you are traveling from Japan, you will need to buy a local phone wherever you are going (with one exception noted below).

The only good news is, the phones available locally in Japan and the ROK are excellent, and generally offer more features than do phones in other markets.

...Of course those features often include things like buying from vending machines, and mobile TV; which probably aren't all that compelling to a business traveler.

There is one exception to this however; in that the carrier Softbank, is now offering 3G only voice and data services over UMTS. So if you have a Quad band UMTS phone, you MAY be able to get service with it in Japan. They even use SIM cards; unfortunately as far as I know they don't sell SIM only packs or prepaid service.

The news is SLIGHTLY better for Japanese users traveling abroad though; because if you buy a quad band 3G phone for use with softbank, you will finally be able to use your phone on networks outside of Japan (presuming they support UMTS voice); whereas before they had no options.

Unfortunately, as 3G only, no matter where you travel (including in Japan) you're looking at a much more limited coverage area, with a lot more dead zones, and difficulties, than if you used a standard local CDMA carrier; so at this time I can't really recommend this route, and I think buying or renting a local phone is still the way to go.

Basically, with Japan out of the way, the entire rest of the world can be divided in two:

The US, and "Everywhere Else".

GSM is the world standard for mobile phones, as of 1991; and most countries around the world excepting Japan and South Korea, but including the US, have extensive GSM coverage.

You can visit the official GSM associations coverage map site here: to get full maps of all GSM coverage around the world.

It is important to note that there are five radio frequency "bands" that GSM can operate on (technically there are 14, but 5 are used for mobile voice), 1900mhz, 1800mhz, 900mhz, 850mhz, and 450mhz; though the 450mhz band is very rarely used.

You will sometimes see these bands referred to as GSM-1900, GSM-1800, GSM-900, GSM-800 and GSM-400; even though technically those are not their exact frequencies.

The same communications technology is used across all five bands, but each one requires a different radio band available to it. Most phones are at least dual band, and over the past few years many phones have gone to tri-band or even quad band (I don't know of any phones that cover all five bands... in fact I don't know of any that cover the 450mhz band at all).

In the U.S. dual band GSM phones cover the 1900mhz, and 850mhz band. Tri band phones usually add the 900mhz band. Quad band phones usually at the 1800mhz band.

In Europe, dual band phones usually cover 900mhz and 1800mhz, add 1900mhz with tri-band, and 850mhz with quad band.

South and Central America generally follow the American convention (except for Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala), Africa and Asia generally follow the European convention.

Basically, quad band should work everywhere on every network (at least those that allow it), and tri-band should work to at least a limited degree almost everywhere. If a phone is advertised as a "world phone" it is probably quad band, but may be a tri-band, so be sure to check closer.

For the world traveler, the best part about GSM, is that it is portable. All GSM carriers around the world use the same basic technology; and in general GSM phones can be transferred from network to network using a small chip called the SIM card (that stands for subscriber information module); provided the handset hasn't been specifically locked to a particular network (or that the user has unlocked the handset).

The SIM card allows every mobile subscriber to make their phone number independent of their phone. If your battery is dead, your phone is broken, or if your phone won't work on the network you have wherever you are at that moment (because it doesn't have that radio band); you can take the SIM card out, and swap it into a phone that IS working, and make and receive calls and text messages on your own account, with your own phone number, without changing anything on your service providers end (though roaming charges may apply).

Apart from coverage, this one feature makes GSM far more useful to the traveller in general than other mobile communications technologies.

Unfortunately, in the US, GSM is not the primary mobile communications technology. In the US, there are two basic technologies available for mobile voice services: GSM, and CDMA.

Though Europe adopted GSM as a single continent wide mobile standard in 1991, and much of the world decided to follow suit, the U.S. has never had a single standard. In fact up until recently every major carrier had their own network that often could not interoperate with other carriers networks; and still today, most mobile handsets cannot be used on another carriers network (though this is an adminsitrative restriction not a technical one).

U.S. carriers also generally have very restrictive contracts, that strictly limit what devices and applications you can use on their networks.You may only use an approved handset on a carriers network, in an approved way etc... etc...

If it sounds like a mess, it is. It's the primary reason why mobile phone adoption rates in the U.S. have historically been much lower than in the rest of the developed world; and why our mobile technology and infrastructure are so far behind, in comparison to most of Europe, Australia, and Japan.

In fact, in terms of mobile infrastructure, technology, and services available in the U.S. we're actually behind India, much of Africa, almost all of Europe and almost all of Asia. That includes countries that we consider third world.

The only region of the world we are clearly ahead of in this is Latin America (well... the corruption and unreliability in Africa put us ahead there too, but THEORETICALLY African networks could be better than ours... if it weren't Africa); and that's mostly because they followed our lead on mobile infrastructure, but did it worse. Even that is changing however, as since 2001 mobile carriers have been racing to build out as much GSM coverage as they can; to the point that even in some of the poorest, and most rural countries in the world, mobile phone service in urban areas is better than that in the U.S.

So, what's world traveler to do?

The picture in URBAN areas, everywhere around the world, outside the US, Japan, and South Korea is simple; buy GSM. If there is working mobile service where you're going, it will probably be GSM.

As I noted above, Japan and South Korea use their own proprietary systems; you'll just have to buy local (or take your chances with 3G voice coverage).

The picture in Latin America and Africa (and to a lesser extent Australia) is pretty muddled; because either there is GSM service, which is spotty to non-existent outside of major urban areas in most countries; or everything is completely incompatible with everything else.

Generally speaking, GSM is a good bet so long as you're staying urban; and if you aren't, you'll either have to buy local, use satcom, or live without connectivity.

The good news is, if there is any kind of service at all, there are usually relatively low cost prepaid phones available.

In the U.S. there are only two GSM mobile carriers, AT&T (which was a TDMA provider, but purchased/merged with Cingular and then converted to entirely GSM), and T-Mobile; and unfortunately, their coverage is somewhat limited outside of major urban areas and interstate highway corridors. This is primarily because GSM is relatively new to the U.S; only arriving here in a limited way in 1994; and extensive network buildout did not begin until 2001.

As time goes on, GSM coverage is rapidly improving; however the U.S. is a HUGE country, and it will be years before GSM coverage matches that of the other major technology, CDMA.

As of right now, there are 3 major (and a lot of minor and regional) carriers in the U.S. using CDMA: Verizon, Sprint-Nextel, and Alltel (and Sprint is near bankruptcy, and Alltel is being acquired by Verizon).

As I said, up until just a few years ago, they all maintained their own networks that had limited, if any, interoperability; but they have all recently switched to a CDMA technology that, at least, allows roaming across all of their networks.

GSM users are used to having transparent coverage wherever they go. This is a relatively new phenomenon for CDMA users... and in fact still has some issues, mostly to do with the way the carriers administer their systems rather than the underlying technologies (Sprint users often report difficulty roaming on Verizon networks for example).

CDMA phones are all carrier locked; and cannot be transferred across networks. In order to activate a CDMA phone, it's ESN/MEID/IMEI (which are hard coded into the phone, though technically they do not have to be; that's by carrier choice) have to be entered into the carriers system and linked into your account and subscriber information; usually by telephoning them.

So, what should a U.S. subscriber do if they want to travel to say, Europe?

If you are a U.S. subscriber, and you know that you will be traveling from the U.S. to Europe (or most of the rest of the world), your best bet is to buy a quad band GSM phone from T-Mobile or AT&T, and unlock it.

Then when you get to Europe you can just pick up a local SIM card, pop it in your phone, and be good to go.

You might be wondering why you would have to unlock the phones, since AT&T (through carrier network share agreements) and T-Mobile operate all over Europe?

Well, as usual, U.S. mobile providers are shafting their customers, by charging international out of network roaming rates on calls made on any network, even those owned by their parent companies.

That means you get charged the full $5-$6 a minute rate (or more - it may have gone up again recently) if you're a U.S. t-mobile subscriber traveling in Germany.

Worse still, the locking scheme T-mobile and AT&T use in the U.S. is incompatible with the scheme they use elsewhere, so you cannot use a local pre-paid SIM card in your phone unless you unlock it.

Thankfully, for most phones, unlocking is easy.

If you are a t-mobile customer they will unlock your phone on request, after you have been with them for at least 90 days. Just call up their customer service, tell them you'll be traveling outside of t-mobiles coverage areas, and they'll send you the unlock code for your specific phone within a few days.

AT&T can be more troublesome, they want to charge you money to unlock your phone, if they'll do it at all. How much they charge depends on what model of phone it is, and how long you've had it. For example, they won't unlock any phone within 6 months of you starting your contract with them, or receiving an "upgrade"; they won't unlock an iPhone 2G at all, and it's $200 to unlock an iPhone 3G.

Eventually, except for the iPhone, even AT&T will unlock your phone for free; once you've paid off a certain amount of the subsidy you got for the phone in the first place (usually $100 to $200 dollars for signing up for a contract); but you may have to hassle them to get them to do it.

Also, you may be able to get them to unlock your phone by calling up their international customer service line and telling them you will be travelling to Europe and need to use a foreign SIM.

Many phones can also be unlocked with special software, and sometimes a special cable, that you can buy over the internet. Some can even be unlocked with "secret" codes, that you can also buy over the internet.

Oh and of course you can always buy an unlocked phone in the first place; though you'll usually pay $100-$300 over the service providers price for the phone, and there may be no warranty.

It is very important to note, although carriers don't LIKE you unlocking your phone, it is PERFECTLY LEGAL for you to do so; and carriers will not terminate your contract for unlocking your phone, or for using an unlocked phone.

If for some reason you take your phone abroad with you, but don't want to swap SIM cards (for example you don't intend to make or receive calls, but you want to keep your standard phone number active in case someone needs to call you in an emergency) you need to remember to disable your voicemail, and any data services before you leave; or you're going to get hit with hefty roaming fees.

What's that? You get roaming fees even if you don't answer the calls?

Oh yes my friends, yet another example of the carriers shafting the customer. When you recieve a call but don't answer it, the call is routed to you internationally, then routed back to your home network to your voicemail mailbox... for which the carrier will charge you DOUBLE the international roaming charge per minute; once for the incoming call, once for the transfer to voicemail.

Trust me, just get a local SIM card, and set up call forwarding back home. You can set your home network mobile number to forward calls to a landline (or even better a VOIP line), and then have that line set to forward calls to whatever your number is wherever you are traveling. It's more complicated, but you will be able to recieve calls on your home network mobile number at a FAR lower cost (typical $0.10 to $0.50 per minute rather than $5 per minute or more).

What if I can't or don't want to use AT&T or T-Mobile?

If you're a U.S. subscriber, and you're already in a contract with someone other than t-mobile or AT&T, you're still reasonably well off; because Europe has a very different mobile phone culture than here in the U.S.

Whereas here, the dominant market condition is long term contracts; throughout most of Europe, most people are on low cost pay as you go plans.

Almost all phones are available without contract at relatively low prices; and air time is available on a pay as you go basis, with topup cards sold in every corner shop. You can also top up online, and from special phone numbers that you dial in and give a credit card.

Most of these phones are carrier locked, but they are generally NOT nationality locked; so if you choose a carrier that operates all over Europe, you can usually swap with a local SIM card from one of those countries. Also, it is generally easier to unlock phones in Europe than in the U.S., with unlock codes readily available for most phones; as well as unlocked phones readily available in many shops (be careful of scams though).

Oh and of course, all of these benefits are available with a SIM only pay as you go account as well, presuming you have a compatible phone (quad band, or euro dual band GSM). You just pop into any phone shop, buy a SIM card, and you get a new phone number and some minutes, and away you go.

Most carriers across Europe offer RELATIVELY low cost international voice roaming, and may offer NO extra cost international roaming within their own networks (O2, Orange, T-mobile, and Vodafone all offer some type of special plan for international roaming).

Also, all of the major GSM carriers have cross charging agreements with each other, so even if there is an international roaming charge, it's relatively small in comparison to the stiff penalties US callers pay.

For example, O2, one of the largest carriers in Europe; has a standard tarriff for their pay as you go service, of 19 cent per minute, national in network calling to land lines, 49 cent national in network calling to mobile networks other than O2, and no out of network roaming fee within the nation of your SIM registration. O2 charges 15 cent to call landlines in most of Europe, 30 cent to call mobiles. Finally, their rate when calling from out of your national area (say your SIM is Irish and you're calling from Spain) is 29 cent per minute to receive a call, and 59 cent per minute to make a call, on any mobile network in the EU (note that is euro cents, not U.S. cents).

That's a fair bit of difference from typical US international roaming rates at $5 a minute.

Why the different rate between landlines and mobiles?

From a U.S. subscribers perspective, the most different (and probably the best) thing about European phone service is that it is "caller pays".

What does that mean?

On both U.S. and European mobile networks, when you make a call, you pay. Right, we all get that.

However, on U.S. mobile networks, the person you are calling ALSO pays THEIR carrier to receive the call.

I bold that, because it's something important for foreign readers traveling in the U.S. to understand; and because it typically boggles their minds, catches them unaawares, and often triggers a sense of righteous outrage (as it should).

That means the phone call is effectively being paid for twice. Worse, you have to pay for the privilege of receiving junk phone calls, telemarketing etc...

On most European networks, if you call someone on a mobile (whether from another mobile or a landline), the caller pays the extra charge; and there is no charge to receive calls.

It may sound complicated, but it's very important when you're on a pay as you go plan, because you can't be run out of minutes by other people calling you. Other people can call you, and you can talk as long as you want, and not have to pay.

The same goes for text messages by the way; which not only tend to be cheaper in Europe, but you only pay for outgoing messages, not incoming. Here in the U.S. they tend to ding us at $0.20 a piece, for both incomign AND outgoing messages.

This is why pay as you go is the most common option in Europe by the by; and why up until recently it has not been common in the U.S. As far as I'm concerned, we get a hell of a raw deal here, having to pay for incoming calls and text messages.

Alright, what if I'm traveling from Europe to the U.S.?

That is a slightly more complicated answer; because you have to take coverage into account, since U.S. GSM carriers have far less coverage area than CDMA carriers.

First step, figure out where you are going, then look at the coverage maps for AT&T wireless, and T-Mobile.

You can see that in urban and suburban areas, AT&T has excellent coverage, with some gaps; and T-mobile is pretty good, though not quite as good as AT&T. Outside of major urban areas though, coverage is pretty spotty. Also, GSM is more sensitive to the "urban canyon" effect than CDMA, and local environmental factors can blank it out more easily.

Presuming where you are traveling to has coverage, then go ahead and get yourself a quad band phone, and unlock it.

Once you get to the U.S. you can buy a SIM only pay as you go card from either T-Mobile for $10 including 10 minutes of airtime or AT&T for either $30 or $40, with anywhere from $20 to as much as $50 worth of minutes depending on whatever special offer they've got going on at that moment.

...You may have to speak clearly and slowly to explain to the people in the store that you don't actually want a phone though; I've found that most of the T-mobile and AT&T store employees don't even know you can get just a SIM only.

Also, you can only get the SIM only packages at corporate owned stores; and just because they have the sign and logo doesn't mean they are a real AT&T or T-Mobile stores. You can find out which ones are corporate stores from their web sites.

Though actually, before you go for a SIM only package, you may want to take a look at what phone deals they have going. In the U.S. mobile phone companies are constantly changing their promotional offers, to try and drum up more business; and you'd be surprised what kind of deal you could get. You could wind up with a second phone, and just as many minutes, for $5 more than the SIM by itself. This is especially true at the non-corporate owned stores; who are always trying to push through their inventory as fast as they can.

If you don't have a tri or quad band phone, and don't feel like buying one; again, picking a phone up locally is no big deal; but at that point you should consider a CDMA phone, as well as GSM.

Verizon has the best coverage of any network nationwide. They even have agreements with some cities to have underground cell sites in the subways, overhead cell sites on commuter trains, and microcell repeaters in some major office buildings, sports stadiums etc...

They have horrible customer service (though Sprint is even worse) and I generally don't like their phones; but if you're only going to be here a few weeks, and you're going to be on pay as you go anyway, what do you care, so long as you get coverage right?

The only real issue with Verizon as a Pay as you go provider specifically, is that their plans are pretty bad. First, they have an activation fee for their pay as you go phones; over and above what they charge you for the phone itself. They charge a per day fee for every day you use the phone, not just a per minute fee; then they stack a per minute fee, and roaming charges on top of that.

The good news is, there are several other pay as you go providers that use the Verizon network through network sharing agreements, that don't have such egregiously bad rates. You get all the network coverage, with less costs.

For example, TracPhone offers both CDMA, and GSM phones; and piggybacks on the provider network of any of the three major CDMA carriers (the GSM phones only use AT&Ts GSM network), at a flat rate of about $0.20 per minute, with no roaming or national long distance charges anywhere in the US.

Virgin Mobile, which uses the Sprint-Nextel network (far less coverage than Verizon in the west; about the same in the east), has rates that start at $0.20 per minute, and go down to as little as $0.025 per minute if you buy 1000 minutes at a time. They also offer monthly prepaid plans, for between $25 an $80 ($25 gives you 200 anytime, plus 500 night and weekend minutes. $80 gives you unlimited minutes) , with no roaming, anywhere in the U.S. Oh and Virgin Mobile offers better international long distance rates than any other provider as well ($0.10 to ireland, $0.20 to the UK and other countries are similar).

The only problem with all of these CDMA providers, is that none of them offer nationwide, pay as you go data services. They all make you use their proprietary, phone only (no tethering to your laptop) browser based email and web services... and they all charge a fair bit for that.

At least with AT&Ts GSM service, you can get real data services for $20 a month on a prepaid account.

Which is a neat segue into the next post in the series, DATA (including VOIP), coming tomorrow.

Get Yourself Connected - Introduction

I live and die by my connectivity.

I'm a remote worker. I get into my actual corporate offices about once every three months. I need voice and data connectivity for every aspect of my job.

Not only that, but I remotely manage and support dozens of systems, a large number of websites (about 30 domains, and a number of sites per domain), and a couple web forums etc...

Basically all my work depends on me having connectivity, wherever I go.

The good part of that is, I can work from anywhere, so long as I can get that connectivity.

The bad part of that is, I can work from anywhere, so long as I can get that connectivity.

Heck, it seems the only place we're safe from work interruption anymore is in a tunnel.

A couple weeks back we were having our usual Wednesday "friends night", which is about what it sounds like; and one of our guests was a co-worker, who unfortunately had to log in to work remotely a couple times, and spend much of the night walking another co-worker through some configurations on new systems, that he was having trouble with.

Irritating... but honestly, we're used to it.

The upside is, I can take vacations without taking days off; because I can work from the hotel during the day, while the family is out by the pool or summat (okay, some might not consider that a plus... )

Which is starting to bring us to the point of this post.

I used to travel a lot as part of my job. By "a lot" I mean 200+ days a year away from home, 3+ days a week on an airplane. I never hit a million miles in a single year, but I did break 500,000 more than once.

Not only that, but I traveled internationally a lot; and had to deal with maintaining connectivity (and my devices) throughout the world.

Thankfully, I don't have to deal with that anymore; but the experience certainly taught me very firm lessons about what works, what doesn't work, and how much it all costs, when it comes to staying connected while traveling.

So, a few days ago, when a Scandinavian traveler related some of his difficulties in getting data service in the U.S. on a recent trip; I had some relevant advice and experience to share. After writing it up, I thought hey, that might be a useful blog post"... and so here we are.

Step one, define your priorities:

Alright, first we need to define what our key elements of connectivity are, and prioritize them.

Without question, my number one priority is local, national, and international voice calling. My business absolutely runs on the conference call. I can live without data connectivity for a while, but I cannot work at all without voice comms. I need them when I'm mobile, and when I'm in a fixed location.

In my case, I need to call out, more than I need people to be able to call in to me; but some might have a more balanced need there (sales folks especially).

My second priority is basic data services. At a minimum I need to be able to send and receive email, and get remote command line access to my systems. I can go without higher bandwidth services for some period of time if necessary, but they make my life easier, and there are some things I can't do without them (like remote desktop).

Third, I need to be able to connect my laptop to data, as well as getting data on whatever mobile device I might be using.

I need these services while I'm mobile, as well as wherever I am staying; though again, voice is more critical while I'm mobile, and data can usually wait, at least a few hours.

So, that's a pretty clear set of priorities:
  1. Voice comms, in and out, local, national, and international, mobile and fixed
  2. Medium speed data while mobile
  3. High speed data periodically
  4. Mobile device data
  5. Laptop data

Next, let's talk about the technologies and services available to us.

The first thing you need to know, is that the technologies available to you depend on where you're starting from, and where you're traveling to. There are a lot of possibilities here, and they're pretty much dictated by your geography.

Also, I'm going to split voice and data services into two different posts; because although they are definitely related, they are best explained and considered separately.

So, let's get started, this is a big subject...