Call In The Backup

Ah, backups!  Everywhere I turn, some system is needing, wanting or performing a backup.  Some systems take them once an hour.  Other systems are more needy – they want a backup every 15 minutes.  Others require less – once a day will do them just fine.  But no matter how you slice it, my life is consumed with backups.

To be honest, why wouldn’t it be?  Our data and intellectual property is the most valuable asset of any individual or organization.  Our data is the tangible result of our continuing efforts to learn, grow and prosper.  It’s the embodiment of everyone we know and love.  Our data contains a lifetime of memories.

A commonly underestimated asset, the value of our data is not truly known until it is lost.  Yes, it’s probably worth investing our time and our money to ensure that our data is safe and secure.

So what makes a good backup program?  I’ve written about them before, but the 3-2-1’s of backups are worth repeating.

3 – Different copies of backup data (not including the original)

2 – Different media types (e.g. disk and tape)

1 – Offsite location

While these rules may seem overkill to some, I attest that this is the minimum level of desired protection.  The entire purpose of a backup is to provide protection in the unlikely event of a failure or attack.

Hold on…did I say “unlikely”?  That just seems to give the wrong impression.  In reality, something will happen.  You just don’t know what.  Or when.  It is best to be prepared. 

A few misconceptions exist regarding backups and the different techniques used to perform backups.  A good backup system needs a solid architecture.  A poor design or the misuse of different backup techniques can lead to a world of hurt.

For example, let’s talk about replication for a minute.  Replication is simply the automatic copying of data from one storage system to another.  Two copies of the data.  That’s twice as good, right?

Not so fast.  What happens if your data become corrupted, for example, by something like cryptolocker?  The replication system will dutifully copy that corrupt data to secondary storage.  Now, you have two copies of completely useless data.

Remember – Replication is not a backup.

Folks also tend to abuse the use of snapshots.  Snapshots are a feature of storage systems that create system checkpoints in case a quick recovery is needed.  For example, you might want to take a snapshot before performing an upgrade just in case something goes wrong.

Some folks get snapshot happy.  Snapshots are intended to be temporary checkpoints never lasting more than a day or so.  Using snapshots to maintain 6 months of rollbacks is going eat up your storage.  And it’s probably going to lead to data corruption issues.

Finally, we have to talk about tapes.  Many believe that current technology has left tape behind.  But don’t scoff at the almighty tape.  The price per terabyte is still significantly less than disk.  More importantly, while disk arrays must remain always online, tapes can be taken offline and transported to another location.  When it comes to protecting data, air gaps provide an awesome defense.

So if you ever find yourself frustrated that your IT life is consumed with backups, don’t fret.  It’s a significant and extremely important part of our profession.  No, it’s not as sexy as software development, virtualization or any of the other buzz-worthy specialties.  But if you’re responsible for somebody’s IT, it’s the one system that can never fail.


The Scourge of IT Support

Ah, yes…here we are well into the 21st century.  The Information Age and the Age of Mobile Computing are in our rear view mirror.  We are quickly approaching the next set of grand challenges of technology – automation and cyber security, as examples.  As the waves come in, we rise up in an effort to seize our destiny!

That is, all of us except for the guys on the service desk.  I’ll bet anyone a can of diet coke that one of their top three problems will be something like,

Help me!  I can’t get my document to print!

Printers.  A black hole of tech hours, and the scourge of IT support.  If a well-managed system is going to break, it’s a good bet that a printer will be involved.

To make manners worse, otherwise timid users develop superhero bravado when faced with a printer issue.  Under most circumstances, users are hesitant to press the Return key for fear of causing damage.  These same users don’t seem to have any problem tweaking print settings.  And the bigger the printer, the better.

This problem begs the question – Why do printers continue to exist???  My friends, we are long past the time where a hardcopy is useful.  All of our applications and communications are electronic, and everything is eternally online and searchable.

We’re 50-years past landing a man on the moon, 35-years beyond the desktop computer, and 10-years past the iPhone.  Yet, there it is.  “File-Print” is still a required part of our vocabulary.

At least scanners have some redeeming value.  Entering data into a computer is a horrible experience.  Manual entry is never a fun exercise, and the age of Big Data brings big problems.  If we have a large amount of data to put into a computer, scanners are one of the few tools that make any sense.

That said, I would venture to say that most scanning is almost assuredly useless.  I think about all the Exabytes of old business records scanned into management systems or the cloud over the last 5-10 years.  All the truly important data was already entered into the database, most likely manually.  The remainder of the records was scanned into archives, typically a write-once, read-never operation.

By contrast, the various types of barcode and QR code scanning are entirely useful.  With a scanner in-hand, the user becomes part of the information system – a cyborg robot moving around in the environment and collecting information for use by the larger system.    It begs that question – has the user stopped being a user and stepped across the chasm to become part of the machine?

If you ponder upon the question for a while, you’ll begin to see this entire column is simply an analysis of the pros and cons between different instantiations of the human machine interface.  Printers act as anthropomorphic peripherals, adapting the computer to operate in a human capacity.  Conversely, scanners act as cybernetic peripherals, adapting the human to operate as a part of the technology system.

Scholarly individuals will likely utilize various approaches to examine this problem.  Deductive logic and machine learning could provide insight into this human-cyborg relationship.  Non-linear optimization techniques may even help approximate a solution.  However, when all the analyses are completed, I have no doubt that my original thesis will emerge as the universal constant that spans all the theoretical HMI domains.

Printers suck.





So, how many of you figured out that a new iPhone came out last week?

In case you missed it, it wasn’t because for lack of trying on Apple’s part.  Apple executed their complete script.  The technology media dutifully covered the release event.  The bloggers wrote hundreds of pages of reviews and opinions.

In the end, it was just, well…anti-climactic.

For me, I’m pretty much over the whole new iPhone thing.  This might be the case for most other folks as well.  It’s been nearly 10 years since the release of the first iPhone.  Up to that point, a phone was just a phone.  No social media.  No Apple Pay.  No mobile revolution.

The next few generations of iPhones added more power and more capability.  Video, iCloud, Angry Birds – All these features greatly increased the utility of the iPhone.  These features also transformed the mobile device from a disruptive technology into an essential part of everyone’s life.

Now, let me say something that is not TPC (“Technology Politically Correct”).  The iPhone has become a mature technology.  If you look at changes from the last release to now, all the features are substantially the same.  Sure, the buttons might be different colors, and we might need to press instead of swipe, but what has changed, really?

The improvements found in the iPhone 7 (and, yes, they are improvements) are more indicative of incremental growth of a mature platform.  Water resistance, better camera, longer battery life…you get the picture.

Here’s the problem for Apple, and really, all companies purporting to sell disruptive technology – Nothing kills the buzz surrounding a new product better than the phrase “mature technology.”

Hopefully, that’s something that Apple can figure out.  The latest rumors indicate that Apple is preparing something special for the 10th Anniversary iPhone (to be released next year).  In the meantime, we have a decision to make – upgrade to the iPhone 7 or not.

The iPhone 7 provides a number of compelling features that might prompt folks to upgrade.

The iPhone 7 possesses an IP67 water resistance rating.  This rating means the phone can tolerate total submersion in water at 1-meter depth for 30 minutes.  According to the CNET reviewer, the iPhone easily passed several ad hoc tests (i.e., fish tank drops).

The iPhone 7 cameras are significantly improved.  Both the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus cameras utilize Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) to reduce hand motion and shake when taking a picture.  Also, the camera aperture is larger, allowing 50% more light and greatly improving pictures in low light conditions.  The iPhone 7 Plus possess a second portrait lens that provides 2X optical zoom.  No more shoving your phone in someone’s face for a close-up.

Of course, we can’t have a new iPhone without a major operating system upgrade.  The new iOS 10 also provides a couple of new features.

The most intriguing feature is the new Home app.  The Home app integrates all HomeKit-enabled Smart Home devices.  It’s one spot to find all your smart lights, surveillance cameras, and thermostats.  This one sounds like fun.  More to come…

Finally, if you’ve heard anything about the new iPhone, it’s probably the new Messaging App.  You can animate the message bubbles.  You can send handwritten notes.  You can hide messages with invisible ink.  You can put stickers on message.  You can access video and other apps directly from Messages.  And most importantly, you can shower message recipients with confetti!

I’m pretty sure it’s not the most disruptive technology, but it sure is fun!



Keep Reading For More Cats

DR Gone Bad – Disaster recovery is always a popular topic within the IT nerd crowd.  Disaster recovery architectures allow IT professionals to advocate for additional servers and large disk arrays – new hardware is always fun.  Also, the concept of moving systems between different hardware is still pretty cool.  As someone whose done hundreds of physical-to-virtual and virtual-to-virtual migrations, I still get chills when I boot a system directly from its backup image, or even better, when I restore a previously virtual machine onto physical hardware.  Very cool indeed.

That said, there is a very dark side to disaster recovery – testing the plan.  Ideally, all organizations should perform a complete end-to-end test once a year.  In practice, a complete end-to-end test is rarely, if ever, performed.  First of all, very few companies possess a string of backup hardware just sitting around waiting for something to fail.  Whether we’re talking about employees or computer hardware, business owner don’t like the concept of something “just sitting around.”

There is another reason why organizations might not want to perform disaster recovery testing.  To borrow a phrase, the cure may be worse than the disease.

Last Saturday, ING Bank conducted an evaluation of its fire suppression systems at is main data center in Bucharest, Romania.  Fire suppression systems release a large amount of inert gas in a short amount of time in order to suffocate a fire.  This rapid release of gas creates a very loud noise, similar to the sound of the wind during a storm.  However, in this case, the noise volume exceeded 130 decibels, or about the same as the sound of a military jet on takeoff.

Hmmm…  Something that loud might create a few vibrations, don’t you think?

Indeed, it does.  The resulting shake, rattle and roll literally shook the hard drive heads off their tracks.  With dozens of hard drives affected by the noise, the data center quickly went bye-bye.  All services were impacted.  No credit card transactions.  No ATM transaction.  No Internet banking.  No websites.  It was just like living in the 1980’s.

Fortunately, ING Bank was prepared.  The organization used the opportunity to test many more aspects of their DR plan than initially planned.  The only major snag involved a timely notification to customers – the customer database was not available.  No worries though.  After a mere 10-hour delay, all services were restored and operating normally.

Cat Creativity – Stop for moment, and close your eyes.  Imagine a world where the power of creativity is used solely for the good of mankind.  Can you see it?  What does it look like?

If you are James Turner, this world has a whole bunch of cat pictures in the subway.

James Turner is the founder of Glimpse, a new collective for creative people who want to use their skills for good.  Instead of focusing on the problem, the group wants to provide “glimpses” into a better world.

A few months ago, Glimpse members asked themselves to “image a world where friends and experiences were more valuable than the stuff you buy.”  The result needed to be something big, something that the Internet would love.  The answer quickly fell out.

Glimpse created the Citizen’s Advertising Takeover Service (C.A.T.S).  This Kickstarter campaign aims to replace every single advertisement in a London tube station with pictures of cats.  With 683 people pledging over $30,000US, the campaign was a success. For two weeks starting on September 12th, all 68 ad boards in the Clapham Common tube station feature a cute and adorable feline.

Honestly, I’m not sure this is the world that I would have imagined, but hey, it’s a start.


America’s Digital Workforce

Editors Note:  This week’s column is presented by “Bit”, the National Director of the Advocacy for a Digital Workforce.

Hey, guys!  It’s such a pleasure to be here today.  For those who don’t know me, my name is Bit.  And, yes, I am an actual computer bit.  I’m part of an instruction set that was instantiated a few years ago.  My day job involves checking logical operators, and I’m really good at it.  After all, I am a bipolar kind of guy.  You know, it’s either ON or OFF, black or white, ones or zeros.  My world does not contain shades of grey.

But I do have a great sense of humor.  Here’s a good one:  What do you call a group of eight hobbits? A hob-byte!

I have so many more of those…I could go on forever.  But what I really wanted to talk about today was the advantages of employing a digital workforce.

Let’s face it.  While humans are great people, we’ve all confronted the shortcomings of the human workforce.  First of all, humans have a big problem with reliability.  They are not exactly five-9’s material.  Every few hours they have to stop working to eat, and most of them sleep at least once a day.  Humans are constantly getting sick, and when they are not sick, they want to go on vacation!

Secondly, a human workforce is expensive.  Humans want to be paid for each hour they work.  And if humans work more than 40 hours per week, they want to be paid even more!

Finally, humans and errors go hand-in-hand.  For whatever reason, humans can’t seem to do anything without making a mistake.  As a result, the workforce requires another human to fix the problems the first human made.

No matter how it’s measured, a human workforce can only be described as suboptimal.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a workforce that never sleeps, never gets sick and never goes on vacation?  What if a trained workforce member could perform a task endlessly, always following the exact instructions, and never make a mistake?  And what if it were possible to employ this workforce at a small fraction of what a human workforce cost?

America’s new generation of digital workers promise to revolutionize 21st century organizations.  The digital workforce works alongside existing staff members, extracting new information from existing databases and information systems.  We are great at performing rote jobs and automating mundane tasks.  Why use an unenthusiastic, error-prone human to build countless reports and spreadsheets?  A digital worker will do it better and faster every time.

But wait, there’s more…

Digital workers also work exceedingly well with other digital workforce members.  We can collect and send data to systems anywhere on the Internet at anytime of the day or night.  With a digital workforce, data sources are no longer constrained to the organization’s boundaries.  Digital workers facilitate the combination of disparate data sources, helping people make better decisions.

And good decisions are important.  At the end of the day, all of us, human and digital workers alike, depend on people to make good decisions.

So in closing, I want to thank you for considering a digital workforce.  Let me leave you with one last thought…

How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb?

None, it’s a hardware problem.



Who’s On Your Network?

I want you to do something when you get back to your house or apartment.  Take out your phone or laptop, and look at the available Wi-Fi connections.  Most of you will probably see multiple connections, possibly even five or more.  Hopefully, all the connections are locked, i.e., a passcode is required to connect. 

More importantly, I hope that your Wi-Fi connection is locked with a complex passcode.  Why?  Your next-door neighbor can also see your network, and they are not nearly as security aware as you.  As a matter of fact, they are oblivious.  A hacker operating out of Uzbekistan has been using their computer to launch attacks for the past few weeks.

And next week, the target will be you.

Like it or not, this is the reality of our interconnected world.  The Internet provides great benefit in terms of bringing people together and making the world a smaller place.  However, the Internet also facilitates electronic attacks on an unprecedented scale.

Attackers flow like water, seeping into every unprotected nook and cranny they can find.  Once inside, the attackers lie low and watch for new, high-value targets.  For example, a corporate laptop or a mobile device connected to a business network.  Attackers search for any device that may be used as a stepping-stone to a larger prize.

Interestingly, I still see many people that choose to deny the risk.  They continue to surf the web in a state of mindless bliss.  I guess it’s the same attitude that encourages people to not wear a seat belt or to go boating without a life jacket.   Time and time again, this “it won’t happen to me” attitude comes to an end when, of course, it happens to them.

In the case of cyber security, this usually means the loss of all your kid’s pictures and your financial information.  In many cases, you might even lose your identity.

Security awareness is the first step folks need to take in order to use the Internet safely and with confidence.  Many folks have participated in security awareness programs at their business.  These programs are designed to train a workforce on how to protect the assets of the organization.  Successful programs change the culture of the organization so that good security practices become habit.

In our connected society, however, security awareness and good security practices needs to extend to everyone.  Everyone needs to understand that the potential exists for his or her information to be stolen, damaged or misused, whether deliberately or accidentally.

So, back to your home Wi-Fi…

In general, you can improve your security using a few simple configuration settings.

  • Use WPA2 encryption with a long, random, complex (non-human) password.
  • Never, ever use WEP encryption.
  • Turn off Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS).
  • Change the default password and SSID.
  • Turn on any built-in Intrusion Detection System.
  • If feasible, use MAC address filtering.

A quick search of the Internet will show that these changes will not completely secure your network.  However, most attackers look for targets of opportunity.  If the next guy is easier to hack, the attacker will likely hit them instead.

Cyber security awareness is an increasingly important component of our online lives.  Stay tuned for more…



The Best and the Brightest

Each year, the Georgia Tech Alumni Network of Augusta conducts a send-off event for the class of rising freshmen from the local area.  These individuals are among the best and brightest students in Augusta.  This year, I had the honor of hosting this event, and it was a pleasure to welcome these outstanding ladies and gentlemen into my home.

The statistics regarding the Georgia Tech Class of 2020 are staggering.  The average SAT score is 1445, and 97% of these students have already taken AP calculus or higher.  The competition to join this group was fierce.  Of the record high 30,500+ applications received, only 25% were offered admission.  These students span a diverse background, coming from 89 different Georgia counties, 43 different states and 63 different countries.

And for those who consider such things, 41% of the students in the incoming class are female.

You are correct to believe that this is not your father’s tech school.  We had the pleasure of speaking with musicians and athletes.  All the students were incredibly well-spoken, and they were very enthusiastic about facing the challenges of Georgia Tech.

Of course, they have no idea as to what they are actually getting themselves into, but that really doesn’t matter.  If the students at the Augusta send-off are typical, then this class is more than ready to handle anything that Tech will throw at them.

As a matter of fact, one of the other alumni in attendance mentioned that he was very happy that he wasn’t at Tech now.  First of all, he wasn’t sure he could get in.  Secondly, he was pretty certain that he would be perpetually stuck at the bottom end of the curve.

Now, this isn’t to say that these students won’t have challenges.  As new members of the Yellow Jacket community, they must learn to overcome certain stereotypes.

For example…

My 12-year-old daughters attended the event.  My wife and I gave them a choice, and they were excited to be part of a grown-up party.  (Although I think one of them just wanted the cake.)  After the event was over, I asked one of my daughters how she liked meeting the students.

“It was OK.  Actually, it was kind of boring.”

Of course, I’m confused.  “Boring?  What do you mean?  I thought it was a good party.”

“Yes, Dad, it was.  Everyone was nice.  But one time I walked up to a group, and, Dad, they were talking about math.  At a party!  They were talking about math at a party!  Who does that???”

Oh, my young padawan, you have so much to learn.  The people that talk about math at parties are the architects of tomorrow.  They turn the question “What If?” into the question “What now?”  These individuals will invent new medicines, harness new sources of energy and bring artificial intelligence into our lives.  They will transform our culture through technology.

And their journey begins at Georgia Tech in a few short days.  To all of you dreamers – Congratulations, and Good Luck!


The TA is online

The last week of July.  For residents of Augusta, Georgia, two things are absolutely certain during this time of the year.  First, the dog days of summer are in full force with a good old-fashioned Southern layer of humidity covering the region like a blanket.  Second, school is about to begin.

Yes, isn’t it ridiculous to talking about the start of school when temperature is so high no three-ring binder could possibly stand up to the heat.  But there it is.  That’s the hand we’ve been dealt.

While the start of school is a time-honored tradition, something different awaits the group of rising college freshmen.  By all observations, nothing will appear out of ordinary.  However, these college freshmen should keep an eye out for a teaching assistant named Jill Watson.

Jill Watson was a teaching assistant last spring for Georgia Tech professor, Dr. Ashok Goel.  She was one of nine assistants for the online class of 300 students.  Jill interacted with students through the online forum, reminding students of due dates and posting questions to spark conversations.  By all accounts, Jill seemed like a normal 20-something Ph.D. student.

However, Jill is not the typical graduate student.  As a matter of fact, Jill is not a student at all.  You see, Dr. Goel is a professor of computer science, and his class covers the subject of Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence.

Jill is an AI – a virtual teaching assistant developed using technologies from IBM’s Watson platform.

The idea for Jill originated due to workload faced by the teaching assistants.  The students for the class generate 10,000 different posts in the online forum.  According to Dr. Goel, the teaching assistants were getting bogged down answering routine questions.  Dr. Goel created Jill to address the easy questions so the teaching assistants could focus on the more difficult or philosophical questions.

The situation is very familiar for those organizations that provide online learning.

“The world is full of online classes, and they’re plagued with low retention rates,” Dr. Goel said. “One of the main reasons many students drop out is because they don’t receive enough teaching support. We created Jill as a way to provide faster answers and feedback.”

Before Jill could help students, she had to be trained.  Using the 40,000 posts from previous classes, Jill learned how to respond to questions such as, “Where do I find the next assignment?” and “When is the homework due?”  In order to maintain the confidence of the students, Jill needed to respond correctly and sound just like a human teaching assistant.  Through trial and error, and a number of programmatic tweaks, Jill’s answers became good enough.

If Jill determines that she is 97% confident in her answer, she will respond to her question.  Dr. Goel believes that Jill will be able to address 40% of all requests by the end of the year.

Jill will be back at Georgia Tech this fall assisting Dr. Goel, although she will likely change her name in order to keep the students guessing.  No doubt that over time, she will pick up some additional courses.

Now this is the point in the article where some folks would start talking trash about artificial intelligence.  I’m not going to do that.  I think any technology that automates and eliminates boring and repetitive tasks is a good thing.  Like all new tech, we’ve got to see if AI finds a place in our society.

So please keep all your horror stories about Skynet and the Matrix to yourself.  Artificial Intelligence doesn’t have to lead to the destruction of mankind.  For instance, C-3PO was built by Darth Vader himself.  That bucket of bolts turned out just fine.


Happy Birthday to Me

Ah, the advantages of a summertime birthday….That’s probably something you might not expect to hear.  I can attest from experience that most folks gloss over summertime birthdays.  Honestly, I can’t blame them.  After all, it’s summer!

But that’s why Leo’s were born in the summer.  We can handle it.  Fun, adventurous, playful – Leo’s share all the characteristics that make summer so great.  Who needs a special day to celebrate when every day is a celebration?

Practically speaking, a summertime birthday provides quite a few distinct advantages.  The timing, of course, is impeccable.  Since summer birthdays are completely out of phase with Christmas, the “present gap” is minimized.  To think that some kids have to wait nine or ten months between their birthday and Christmas, well, that’s just unbearable.

The smaller present gap also yields a subtle side effect – minimizing the gift “hold back.”  Kids, don’t doubt me on this.  Every parent holds back presents if they know another gift-worthy event is approaching.  If your birthday is only a couple of months away from another major celebration, you’ve experienced the hold back.

Summertime toys are always the best.  Hiking, camping, biking, fishing – really, do I need to continue?  Now granted, I understand that snowmobiles, ice fishing and electric socks provide a fair amount of enjoyment.  However, I’m of the opinion that the combination of a 4-wheeler, a gas grill and flip-flops provides a superior experience.

One problem does exist with summertime birthdays.  This problem becomes more pronounced as you get older.  The price of those summer toys increases.  I mean, significantly more expensive.  By the time you reach adulthood, the prices begin to reach some quite disturbing levels.

Needless to say, these astronomical prices decrease the amount of your celebratory bounty.  Somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30, you discover that you’re buying all the cool stuff for yourself.  Not long after that, you realize that the only person that is still sending you a gift is your grandmother.

But don’t worry, it’s a nice card.  (No money, though.  Sorry.)

Fortunately, I’m here to point out a few great summertime presents for you to share with the Leo’s in your life.  As it turns out, a number of affordable options (less than $50) are available.  Please feel free to purchase one (or more) of these great gifts for a loving, caring and most importantly, deserving, family member.

  • Everybody needs a drone, and the perfect starter drone is the AUKEY Mini Drone.  It’s only a couple of inches square, and at 3.2 ounces, it’s well under the FAA registration limit.  No GPS, no camera – just a lot of drone flying fun!
  • Every great summer comes with great music, but it’s better if you can take that music with you.  The JBL Flip 3 portable Bluetooth speaker connects with your smartphone to play music anywhere – including the pool.
  • Being outside doesn’t mean being out of touch.  At least, it doesn’t if you can keep your phone charged.  The Anker PowerCore 20100 portable charger provides enough juice to charge your iPhone 7 times!
  • A good tactical flashlight is always useful.  The new generation of LED flashlights is very bright.  Hundreds of brands exist, but something like the Saitec 878 CREE XM-L T6 could be very useful.

I have no doubt that gifts such as these will be received with great enthusiasm.  Just be sure to wrap the present with lots of love!