Green Low-Power Alternative Computing Intel NUC Boxes

The key features of low power NUC boxes are that they are small,lightweight,portable,efficient and the low power means less heat and energy savings which all mean “Green Efficient Computing for the Environment”.  In addition consider that you could run these units without power on a UPS for a much longer period of time than most laptops or Desktop computers.  In an emergency or any issue with lack of power, these units will be first and foremost.

As a bit of continuation of my Green Computing talk these NUC boxes take it to the next level from Intel using low power laptop DDR3L SODIMM memory.  I recently bought a barebone Intel NUC J3455 Box for my wife and was impressed at the power usage (literally 10W to the wall at 110V!) and it is still a Quad-Core albeit with slightly lower CPU frequency of just 1.5Ghz but it works great for most functions.  I was able to upgrade it easily to 8GB of RAM (2x4GB), it has an SD card slot built-in, HDMI, VGA and 4 USB 3.0 ports and a 2.5″ SATA 3.0 port that I plugged a 256GB SSD into and installed Ubuntu/Linux Mint on.  It works quite well but there appear to be a few bugs and fidgeting required, for example the NIC cable came loose and it wouldn’t work until I replugged and rebooted it (actually the BIOS stopped showing the NIC at all so somehow it got disabled on its own and there was no option to rThe cheaper one on the left is bare-ones and e-enable or disable it in the BIOS).  You also have to disable the C-Step functions or the CPU doesn’t work properly.  In Linux it looks like there is a bug in the Intel Graphics driver for this model that sometimes causes the graphics/mdm to be restarted. Aside from the tinkering it is well worth the cost saving and works well and reliably.

One thing I will say I am a little surprised at is that the unit does get fairly hot if you are using it heavily and there is no fan in the Intel NUC which means things do get a bit hot (but nothing compared to a laptop).  It comes down to HDD, RAM and CPU being cramped into an incredibly small package.

The Vorke V1 J3160 is basically the same thing as above but does not have the 2 RAM slots (only a single).  However it is priced well and only uses 6W instead of 10W, quite the power savings!  I have purchased the unit below but have not had a chance to test it but I am hoping for the same or better results as the Intel J3455 unit above.  I love how this one comes with 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD out of the box and includes Windows so it’s ready to go out of the box (many like me will just be installing Linux though).  It can serve as an excellent backup box (eg. plug it in somewhere else and hook up a bunch of large USB 3.0 HDDs and keep another copy of your data). Or in my case it could just be an excellent “stand-by” computer with a mirror of your current config “just in case” your main unit goes down you could get going instantly with the backup one.  One other feature I am hoping for in this unit is to see the BIOS is a little more stable and less buggy than Intel’s.  Finally I am hopeful the unit will run cooler due to the 6W CPU and built-in case fan which I think Intel may want to consider too.   Time will tell but I am looking forward to getting a chance to open and test the Vorke V1 and hope they will keep producing similar units.

Bitcoin’s Hard Fork of BCH Bitcoin Cash a milestone for cryptocurrency

The hard fork occurred on August 1st, 2017 with some nodes of the Bitcoin network implementing the “Segwit update”.  Although a lot of potential chaos could have happened, many in the industry called it correct that the most probable scenario is that the split would occur with the creation of BCH and Bitcoin users would not lose any coins and would be rewarded with an equal amount of BCH.  However, most exchanges and users were advised to backup their wallets and not do any transactions in the meantime.

Beyond this a lot of questions and issues need to be sorted out in the cryptocurrency world for things to stabilize and be universally accepted by businesses and individuals.  The key issues in my mind are “volatility”, “stability”, “security” and “regulation”. Really a serious issue with either of my three cores issues puts people and businesses at big risk although new updates and coins keep coming out with some promising the solution to these various issues.

Volatility

This is in reference to the extremely unpredictable nature of many currencies and Bitcoin is a core example with rapid swings.  Now people have often been warned that “don’t store your coins for the long-term” and this comes from the Bitcoin team itself as no one can be certain of the future of any coin at this moment.

Some have lamented that cash is the same, this is true but with the caveat that cash is backed by a government and central bank (all of who which do not really like cryptocurrency unless it is managed or under their control-more on regulations later).  Cash of course has had its issues whether run on banks, robberies, theft, fraud and other misuses of currency however cash is what most of us know and there is some safety and security in the “right cash” and at least often some predictability.

Take for example a record high of Bitcoin at the time in 2013 of approximately $1300 USD but sometime in 2015 trading was just at $267 USD.  The point here is that at this time cryptocurrency can be very volatile and unpredictable.  It can create chaos in everyday life for both business and individuals.  A risk that many businesses echo is the above scenario what if you accept payment based on USD in a cryptocurrency and the value plummets by 80% or some other high number suddenly?  It creates huge issues to say the least and time should address them but until there are more coins that have some consistency in their valuation without rapid descents there will be some reluctance.

Stability

There have been many instances on both the networks and exchanges for Bitcoin and Etherum where there are a ton of unconfirmed transactions.   I still have trouble understanding this but there are various numbers of “confirmations” before once can be comfortable they really have the currency that has been sent.  What if the network stops working or slows down creating massive fraud or inability to process transactions?

Fortunately there are new coins coming out which are instant that solve this issue but still there are many in the wild, common and highly valued that do not have these features.

There is also of course the concern that massive DDOS attacks could take out the network of a cryptocurrency or effectively shutting it down.

Security

The biggest threat is that there is the assumption that blockchain is secure and irreversible and it is impossible to play around in ways you shouldn’t.  However, this also relies on someone not finding a weakness or exploit against the blockchain, and what is more probable going forward is that an organization with massive computing power ultimately finds this and exploits this in various ways.

There are also other considerations such as people losing their coins to viruses or hackers, this has even happened to exchanges such as Coinbase executives.  One thing for sure is that it is not wise to leave your coins in an exchange if not for the risk that in the recent Bitcoin Fork the exchange refuses to give you the split/new currency.

Regulation

This is the biggest uncharted territory but governments and large financial institutions have made their position clear and my interpretation is that “we love blockchain” but “we hate that it is not under our control yet”.  This will have significant repercussions worldwide on how individuals and businesses deal with cryptocurrency.  Significant regulation and the introduction of state-run/central cryptocurrencies could potentially wipe out or make worthless some coins overnight. On another note it appears to be increasingly difficult to buy or sell out of the cryptocurrency markets with banks making it increasingly difficult for the coin exchanges to operate.

Conclusion

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have made it far beyond the naysayers and through many difficult and unpredictable times.  Ultimately I believe cryptocurrency will continue to evolve and improve but as with any tool there are always going to be some pitfalls and bottlenecks.

My Take On WannaCry

Reading media coverage of the WannaCry, ransomware attack has been excruciatingly frustrating because little to no information was offered on how infection happens and how to protect yourself.

This issue has been a bit frustrating and unhelpful as an IT professional and user if I didn’t find the right answers there is something seriously wrong.  I couldn’t find the important information in any of the mainstream articles so certainly a novice or amateur user would have no chance of protecting themselves.

How Did WannaCry Infect and Spread?

Long version here from Malwarebytes

One of the key ways is still the oldest “phishing” trick in the book, via e-mail which many users are tricked into opening infected attachments.  This was not readily available in media coverage and this simple warning or announcement could have prevented a lot of new infections.  I believe this is a key factor that has not been discussed since many networks will be behind NAT and external SMB services would be blocked, having users on the LAN install the worm is an easy way to get inside and spread the infection to areas that are hardened on the outside.

The more technical explanation there is an exploit called “ETERNALBLUE” which was a hacking tool leaked from the NSA which exploited a weakness in Microsoft’s implementation of SMB (Server Message Block/filesharing protocol).   This has been widely reported but the simple way to prevent automatic infection through this method has not.

Once infected the worm essentially scans your LAN and then the internet to spread the infection further which quickly multiplied the damage and scope of this attack.

How to protect yourself?

  1. First and foremost is to update your Microsoft Windows regardless of OS (whether you have XP, Vista, 7, 10, 12 or any Server) because all Microsoft versions are apparently impacted by MS17-010 ETERNALBLUE/WannaCry
  2. Disable SMB/Filesharing in Windows and if that is not possible at least use firewall settings to block SMB/filesharing/CIFS.
  3. If the above is not possible you should physically unplug any impacted machines from the network (it could be a simple as disabling all ports on your network/switch or even unplugging entire switches if possible).

Who is to blame?

There is plenty of blame to go around but currently a lot of it is coming from Microsoft who is blaming users for not patching and the NSA for hoarding these exploits and not notifying them or users beforehand.

In all fairness Microsoft did issue patches for even unsupported OS’s like Vista and XP on March 14th, 2017.

Many have mused that the NSA should have at last notified Microsoft the moment they realized their hacking tools were leaked.

At the end of the day the question is how could Microsoft have left open such a serious vulnerability for so long?  Was it an intentional backdoor and was it collaboration between Microsoft and the NSA or other third parties?

Some Can’t Patch

Some systems may be running on internal networks on their own LAN but were still infected so they wouldn’t be patched.  To make matters worse the chances are these would more likely be critical data and infrastructure that are impacted in this case.

Other machines are not managed properly or remotely and are deployed with internet access making them sitting ducks for these types of attacks.

There are also some who just don’t patch because the risk to impacting existing services is too great.  Although I would argue the risk is much higher to not patch and not upgrade or migrate your applications to a more secure platform if you get hit with ransomware like this.

These Issues Are Nothing New

With the Snowden revelations many have worried that US tech companies being forced to provide backdoor access to the NSA would be vulnerable should other hackers discovery the vulnerabilities or intentional backdoors on their own, or in this case when the tools and exploits were somehow leaked.

In the wider scope of things Microsoft has seen worms of this scale in the past, it’s nothing new.  There are no worldwide protocols for notifying users or defending against such worms and this will certainly become an increasingly problem with more and more devices online especially with IoT and so many devices that are connected that we don’t think about, and that don’t get patched or may not have an easy or automatic way of updating.

Why I Founded Techrich Corporation of Hong Kong, China

This is a question that I’ve been asked a lot considering that people ask if there is any duplication of overlap with compevo.  Techrich is an extension and complement to compevo and allows possibilities for our clients.

Being incorporated and based in Hong Kong allows us to provide more leverage and advantages and fills any gap that compevo may not have been able to fulfill.  In terms of data storage, security and connectivity Hong Kong cannot be beat.  It has the best of nearly all worlds.

Why Hong Kong?

This is the next, natural question that follows.  Hong Kong is economically, politically, and technically stable in terms of both IT infrastructure, ecosystem and most importantly its link to the outside world is fast and neutral.  Hong Kong itself is still the internet gateway to China, being directly connected to Mainland China.

Hong Kong is also has a large Big Data industry and demand due its reputation as a financial hub of the world which is a perfect ecosystem and fit for Techrich’s goals.

Contrary to some common belief, Hong Kong is not in the Asian Ring of Fire and is relatively free of any natural disasters, making it not only an ideal location on a world scale but perfect within Asia too.  Hong Kong does experience typhoons but they are rarely devastating and have little to no impact on IT or datacenter operations in Hong Kong. In fact Hong Kong’s power grid is known to be one of the most reliable and stable in the world.

In terms of internet routing Hong Kong is quite neutral with excellent connectivity to all of Asia, North America and Europe, but of particular importance is the capability of very low ping times into Mainland China that only Hong Kong can provide.

Slow Internet in China especially Shanghai and Beijing!

A colleague sent me this article asking my thoughts: http://travel.cnn.com/shanghai/life/your-internet-connection-feel-slow-its-probably-not-your-router-684008/

A lot of people automatically assume the best internet experience will be found in Beijing or Shanghai but we’ve never known that to be the case.  A lot of people will automatically assume it is the GFW/Great Firewall but in fact from my experience it simply seems to be packetloss due to congestion.  China has an enormous amount of demand for bandwidth since it has the highest amount of users (736million as of 2017!) in the world. This is why for compevo and Techrich we’ve always avoided the major centers due to the congestion.  However, bandwidth and good connectivity inside and outside of China is not always dictated by the location and even the backbone in the same cities of China are not created equally.  It takes a lot of research to get access to reliable and fast bandwidth in China but this is a completely different book to write.

With that in mind there are many ways around the slow internet in China, if your local connection is fast and connection inside China is fast you could simply use an internet acceleration service that runs through a less congested part of China and even Hong Kong.  It’s a great way to optimize your internet.

My recommendation even in 2017 is that there are many places in China with fast and reliable internet but major hubs will not likely one of them anytime soon due to the user bases in major areas being so large.

An Opportunity To Share Values

With so many customers asking us if someone from “ABC country” and “ABC religion” is welcome as a customer I thought it was finally time for us to go public on this very important topic.  There is nothing worse than someone being treated differently or in a negative way, whether verbally, physically or some other discriminatory policies simply because of their race, religion, creed, culture etc..  We have clients and staff of all different backgrounds from around the world, and I am pleased that we have such diversity and accordingly, this filters down into company policy as well.

The above is something I have always strongly believed in and was ingrained in me from childhood, that people of all ethnic and religious groups must live respectfully and peacefully.  Aside from a desire to see peace in the world, anything other than mutual respect and treatment of all people creates divisions that harm society and the economy.  There are no winners in such a situation.

With that said I am still shocked that apparently many CEO’s and management of various companies are reluctant to clarify their views and policies on these issues.  Under normal circumstances it may be considered taboo or uncomfortable to talk about, but with so much intolerance spreading throughout the world, there is definitely understandable cause for concern.

I do not take offense to customers asking us about our views and policies and I also think all businesses need to take a proactive approach with internal and public policies guiding staff and patrons.  People of all ethnic and religious groups can and should feel safe anywhere, but in these times it is understandable if some don’t, especially if a business refuses to clarify their beliefs and policies surrounding these issues.

As uncomfortable as some may find this talk to have with their employees or to be asked by customers, I think we should all be understanding and if we are truly inclusive an tolerant it shouldn’t be hard to reassure our customers and state that these are our views and our company policy.  To act with compassion and tolerance is the right thing to do and as both a person and business owner I will strive to make sure this is more clear and in the public and hope other company’s will do the same.

 

 

Teaching Code To Kids

I believe teaching coding to kids in any form is a benefit for them regardless of their career path.  It really exercises the brain and mind into solving problems in your mind and requires a lot of creativity.  If they can learn coding at a young age it is likely they will continue to learn well in other areas for the rest of their life.

I don’t know if there is a magic number of when to start but if a child is able to use a computer to play games, they are probably capable of being introduced.  I think it’s important to make it as a fun as possible and without too much pressure, which is obviously difficult at a younger age but part of getting them there is not just the coding, but if they start more advanced academics at a young age they are more likely to have the discipline to think things through.

A quick Google search makes it look like there is growing interest for kids and there are now platforms and services intended to help.

Another great thing about kids learning to code is that for children in impoverished areas of the world, who may have access to a computer can be on a level playing field.  In IT you work from almost anywhere in the world and your talent can be recognized.

Being an Expert on China’s Internet And Getting Ahead

After years of offering internet services in China a lot of our customers consider us experts on Chinese internet.  I’ve observed that on top of our typical IT consulting, that we’ve frequently been called on by firms as their consultant for all things internet in China.

In China the first thing people think of is regulations and rules and it often sounds more scary than it is or has to be.  Some firms have needlessly neglected the Chinese market over rules that may not even apply to their usage or simply over the concern of seeking an ICP license for hosting purposes (which is not all that hard if you have a presence in China).  Don’t get me wrong, like any country there are regulations to be followed and understood, but most of these are well-documented knowns.

The biggest challenge aside from the known regulatory issues in China is finding quality and reliable bandwidth, both locally (for within China) and overseas (outside China).  We get a lot of clients switching to us in China because they say our bandwidth is the fastest and most reliable.

A lot of people believe that a certain city or location guarantees their service will be slower or faster, but this is certainly not true whether you are on China Unicom or China Telecom.  There are some things I will agree with, however, which is that Telecom seems to have overall lower ping to most parts of the world.  But ping in China still does not guarantee better speeds for many different reasons and some circuits with higher ping have constantly outperformed to certain parts of the world.

There are many reasons why people have problems with the internet in China and I strongly believe one of the biggest factors is simply congestion.  Even in many parts of North America users can attest that the internet has been slow for them at some point over the years and it becomes obvious during summer months there is more usage.

Now imagine the same thing in China only with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people (2015) compared to all of North America’s 533million.  There is a high population density on most major centers of China and this is why home and office speeds have not been as fast as some other countries in Asia.

This is where I would always advise anyone who says “we want our servers only in Beijing and Shanghai” to think again.  You are going to be dealing with a lot of internet congestion at the local level, more firewall issues and the chance of disaster impacting major metropolitan areas is much higher.

Our course has been different from the start, we avoid congested city centers and find less used fiber and provision our circuits on that basis.  But it’s still not enough to rely on a certain area or even city.  We’ve tested dozens of circuits in some areas and found that at best a handful will have good speeds and many will still only be good within China.

To find the right mix it takes a lot of time, testing and travel in China and is why we’ve been so successful in helping our clients get ahead in China.

Internet in China is a constantly evolving and complex subject to say the least, and what may have been true days, or weeks ago may not be true anymore.  I always advise people that unless you have contacts in all parts of China and are willing to travel you absolutely must find a provider in China that is not restricted to a single area and is familiar with the networks strengths and weaknesses in all areas.

And last but not least, it’s about having the contacts to try and improve routing issues as 9/10 providers in China are not able or willing to respond to network issues on the backbone.

For those who are very serious about China they will often obtain servers with us on multiple Telecom and Unicom circuits in various areas of China.  This has consistently been a winning tactic for our clients for a long time.  The reason most clients want servers on China Telecom and China Unicom is simply not only for redundancy but for better connectivity as often the two providers have issues communicating.

I still feel it is not as entirely bad as some have expressed but it depends on the area.  As far as the backbone goes, usually as long as the Telecom and Unicom server are separated by a great distance things are less problematic.  But of course the issue is that consumer grade Telecom and Unicom is far different and is where the issues really come into play and necessitate the need for both providers, at least if serving the local market in China.

The above is really just some things we have seen in a nutshell but there is enough that goes on that would be enough to write a whole book on.

Dedicated Server Uptime Samples

I just logged into two random dedicated servers and I am always happy about the time uptimes we have:

13:05:37 up 960 days, 21 min,  1 user,  load average: 0.00, 0.01, 0.05

14:11:14 up 835 days, 18:01,  6 users,  load average: 0.09, 0.02, 0.01

In the case of both servers they have never been down, they were literally installed on a rack from the time shown above.

The reason our uptime is always fantastic is not only because our facilities being out of the core disaster areas.  We never overload or oversell our servers.  We are not a budget provider, but still offer excellent value in my opinion.  We’ve had a lot of clients switch to us from other hosts primarily based on the reasoning “no amount of features or gimmicks in the world matter if you have an unreliable service”.