Horse Sense #105

Home and Business Networking

In this issue of Horse Sense:
-Business Continuity Lessons Continue
-Home and Business Networking
-That Video Will Cost You

Business Continuity Lessons Continue

The last Horse Sense was on business continuity. Unfortunately, a single event can have a long tail. Our building still has a hole in its roof because insurance adjusters and roofers are so busy in the aftermath of that storm. We also cannot recover the time or revenue lost. Think of it like a sports injury. It is bad enough at the time, but it can keep you from getting back to your old playing form or require physical therapy for a while. Get the idea out of your head that recovering from a disaster will be quick. In general, complete recovery will take a long time and some things will be unrecoverable.

Home and Business Networking

Entire industries have bloomed and disappeared since I started my business. For example, movies have gone from beta to VCR to DVD to Blu-Ray to downloads and digital streaming. In the end, it boiled down to getting information from the content producers to the content consumers in the cheapest, fastest, best quality way possible. As that happened, our homes changed a lot. We went from very few electronics in our house, to a whole host of them requiring batteries, adjustments, service plans, upgrades, replacements, etcetera on a continuing basis.

When I started this business, I, like you, had few electronics in my house. I had a stereo. I had a cassette tape player. I had a radio in my car. I had a single TV. I had a couple of phones hard wired to the phone company's central office. I had a modem in my computer. And, that is about it. All of it I had had for a while and I expected it to be around "forever."

Now, my home, car, and person are nearly buried in electronics. My six year old son has multiple electronic games and also subscribes to and plays games on the computer and on mommy's phone. I hardly ever pick up an optical disk any more, but I carry multiple USB flash drives in my pocket. I carry a computer (smart phone) on my belt that has more power, capability, speed, connectivity, and reach than the laptop I used to use for work when I started my business. Oh, and I didn't have a cell phone then. They were too rare and expensive. I cannot believe how much I have spent on the electronics in my house and the service plans to support them (cable company, cell phone company, etc).

The home or consumer world has changed a lot more than has the business world. I was quite surprised when I found out that I now have more items on my network at home than at work, and I am probably not alone. I use wireless networking at home, but do not at the office. Wireless networks are convenient, but they are not as fast, reliable, or secure as wired networks. Among the items on my home network are TVs (yes, they are Internet connected too and update their internal firmware via the Internet or can download content), Tivo boxes, a PS3, power line Ethernet switches, a wireless router/firewall/DSL box, a box that connects my phones to Vonage, smart phones, computers, and a printer for a total of 20! And that does not count what my guests might be using. My home network has not only more items on it, but they share a lot of characteristics. The documentation, when compared to my business equipment, is poor to non-existent. Each device has its own unique way of working and there are often a lot of complex and complicated menus or command line options. They are fairly difficult to configure for particular use cases. Security is what is built into the device and often the default is to have no or very little security out of the box.

The business world is different in concept from the consumer world. They are called consumers for a reason. They consume what businesses produce. Most of the electronics in your home have one purpose, to provide content to you that someone else has produced. This is one reason why it is usual and more important to have good download bandwidth at your house than upload bandwidth. Generally, you provide very little information at your house that others want to see. Almost all of the devices are designed for the consumption (hearing, visualization) of information.

Sure, you do write e mails and keep your checkbook. You may even bank on line. You use passwords to log into protected sites. Some people even work at home and access their corporate network, send e mails, etcetera. But, remember what I said about security? In general, security away from the office compared to being in the office is pitiful. And, if you take your laptop or smart phone to the airport, a coffee shop, or a hotel, the security and reliability of the network is even worse and completely out of your control.

CIA spells security. The acronym stands for Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability. You want to know that the information you have is kept safe from prying eyes, has not been tampered with/altered/degraded/lost, and is there when you need it. People really underestimate availability. Getting the information where and when you need it, securely, reliably, and in a usable state is hard. Home networks and Internet connections are much less reliable than business grade networks. Home based workers have to deal with not only their internal networks, but have to contend with the Internet service provider and their connections out to the rest of the world on the way to the office resources they are remotely accessing. Availability can bite you. If the database is hard to work on over the network or through the Internet, there will be a temptation to download the whole thing to a laptop to get the work done.

From the standpoint of the bad guys, remember the three Vs. How Valuable is this information to someone else? My brother values his toenail clipper collection, but few others do. How Vulnerable is this information to being accessed? Is it protected by lock and key? Is it password protected? How Visible is this information? Is it in multiple places? Is it somehow connected to the Internet? How many people have access? Since offices generally have better security, the information is not only less visible, it is less vulnerable than the same information housed on a laptop or drive at a hotel or at home.

Does this make you a little uncomfortable? Good. The best security decisions come from people who are worried and thinking about protecting themselves. You can never be completely safe, but you can manage your risks intelligently.

If you need help and advice in doing so, contact us and we will help you.

A couple of quick pointers: More modern electronics are designed to be two things: readily available and power saving. Unfortunately, readily available compromises both power savings and security. Though your computer or other device may be "off" because you pressed the clicker, it is not really off. Think about it. Could you turn it on with a clicker if it were completely off? Electronics in a power down state still draw electricity and can wake up either by your action or by someone remotely requesting them to do so or by a timer (most often for maintenance). Nowadays you can only ensure a device is completely off and secure by unplugging it from the wall. Pulling the plug on a device is the ultimate in device security (unless someone physically steals it or hacks it while it is turned on, of course).

Computers are more vulnerable than cell phones because there are more of them running the same kind of software. They also tend to have more of value on them as well. But, as phones and tablets become more prevalent, we are seeing attacks targeting these devices as well. Assume that any device might get compromised and assess what damage it could do you. And, yes, tools exist to protect some smart phones.

That Video Will Cost You

The Internet and wireless networks have progressed from a research and communications tools to business tools to tools for consumer consumption. Bandwidth has mushroomed. As much as people would like to deny it, every bit of information has a cost. For one thing, each connection has only a fixed amount of carrying capacity, processing power, or ability to deliver information. Once you reach that limit, you can do nothing else or may be forced to share with someone else who needs information.

Computer and cell phone networks turn out to be terrible ways to deliver large, consistent data streams like movies. Sure, you can do it, but the design sucks. Think of a movie theater. Lots of people can watch the same show at once, but they are limited to doing it all at the same time. They cannot stop it while they run to get popcorn. With video delivered over the Internet, the best case scenario is similar as in a live video conference. However, each individual watching the conference is seeing his own version of that screen. That amounts to the same video being played at the same time, but everyone having their own private screen (lots of bandwidth gets used). Even worse is when you cannot broadcast, but instead have 1000 people downloading the same show to watch 1000 times.

Data networks are not built for video or audio. In general, a server on a data network gets a request and responds to the request as fast as it can, completely filling the pipe for as long as it needs if it can. However, video and audio connections instead want a constant data stream, rather than a bursty one. Think of it like a guy unloading boxes off a truck with a dolly versus an assembly line moving widgets along at a measured rate of speed. If the guy drops a box along the way, he figures it out by checking his manifest and then gets another box from the source.

Because they use bandwidth so poorly and the networks are not made to handle them well, you can get lots of glitches. But the biggest problem comes with video. A single Blu-Ray movie contains the same amount of information as millions of e mails and both share the Internet. Now you know why management tells you not to play Internet radio or watch movies on your work PC. You gum up the lines for everyone else. The problem is so bad that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and cell phone companies are capping the amount of data your connection can receive. You can still download that movie, but it will likely cost you a lot more and/or take a lot longer than you bargained for. Without limiting this access, a few big users could slow thousands to a crawl. If the pipes get too congested, you may not be able to get a connection at all or an existing connection could drop.

Every bit you store or transmit has a cost. The value of that bit, though, is likely to be much higher in an e mail than in a video. Many consumers and businesses ignore this simple fact and add significantly costs to their bottom line. Worse, they may visit that cost upon someone else by sending them a video or a graphics file containing a small bit of useful text. So, think less is more and read my next article on e mail etiquette.

If you are worried whether someone is watching the Olympics on your business network and causing everything to slow up, and they probably are if you are worried, we can help.

©2012 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse