Horse Sense #91

Betting on the Future:  Beta Testing

In this issue of Horse Sense:

--Solid State Drive Experience Testing
--Why NOT to Use an E Mail "I Am Out" Message
--Betting on the Future:  Beta Testing
----Example:  The IPAD (Iron Maiden)
----Example:  Symform
----Example:  Symantec (with an offer to experience unreleased products!)

Solid State Drive Experience Testing

It is one thing to talk about speeds, feeds, and specifications.  It is another to actually experience a product.  I have talked about solid state disk drives in the past, but now I have had one in my notebook for a couple of months and I am not going back to a magnetic hard disk.  I have an older, but still respectable notebook with a 2007 BIOS date.  It is a Core 2 Duo T7300 at 2GHz with 2GB of RAM, so it is not a speed demon.  I squeeze even more life out of my PCs than do most of my customers.  I had a 5400 rpm 120GB Seagate Momentus 5400.3 hard disk in the machine.  I replaced it with a Kingston 128GB SNVP325S2128GB solid state drive.  The Windows Experience Index didn't change since it is based on the lowest number it finds, but the disk index went from 4.8 to 7.1.  The data sheet on this drive said I could get near 230MB/s in sequential read and 180MB/s in sequential write performance, and my tests came close enough to that to believe those numbers.

Switching to the solid state disk was relatively hard since I decided I did not want to bring all my Windows Vista  warts with me and upgraded to Windows 7 at the same time.  Windows 7 also is the first Microsoft operating system to understand how to better utilize a solid state disk, though they still work fine on older operating systems.  First, I made an image backup of the old hard drive.  Then I pulled it out of the system and installed the brand new solid state drive.  Formatting and installation were incredibly fast.  Now came the tricky part, my old programs and data.  Laplink's PC Mover helped a lot.  It allowed me to attach the old hard drive to my computer and transfer all the programs, their authorization keys, the program settings, and all my data.  That turned out to be over 10 gigabytes of information.  This was a relatively slow process since I had the old drive connected via a USB 2.0 cable.  I had to test everything to make sure it was how I wanted it and make adjustments that favored the new operating system.  This was the longest part of the process.  I do recommend PC Mover if you are transitioning an older Windows machine to Windows 7, but do not expect it to do everything.  You will still want to confidence check all your programs, for example.

Typing this newsletter or surfing the web is just the same with a solid state drive.  Where the disk is heavily involved, the difference is startling.  My machine's case is no longer hot to the touch on the bottom.  It lasts longer on a battery charge.  I do not treat my PC quite as gingerly any more because I know the solid state disk is more resistant to shocks and changing the orientation of the laptop will not hurt it either.  The machine boots up so quickly that I do not think twice about shutting it down any more.  It resumes quickly from powered down states, including full hibernation which I did not allow previously.  Occasionally, my system used to "stutter" while it wrote something to the hard disk.  This now happens rarely and the "stutter" takes less time.  Antiviral scans of my hard disk complete very quickly.  What probably surprised me the most is that transfers via the network got smoother and faster.  Full system image backups are a breeze.  Video training sessions or TV shows on my laptop show less stutter and there is also no noise from the hard disk working and little from the system fan because it does not have to work as hard to keep the laptop cool.

The Return on Grief (tm) on my laptop upgrade was significant, but....  I really have not been able to stress the solid state drive.  To do that, I would need a much more powerful machine.  There has been no downside to this upgrade, other than the cost of the device and the conversion effort.  While the conversion effort is always the biggest cost in doing something like this, and my conversion was much more difficult because I switched operating systems, the speed of the solid state disk cut down the time needed significantly.  Based on my experiences, I would recommend that you strongly consider a solid state drive for all of your laptops.  I recommend solid state drives as boot drives (if not the only drive) in your desktop systems.  I also recommend solid state drives as boot, cache, or just plain storage drives for your servers.  Anyone building a multimedia PC or who is replacing a drive in a consumer electronic device will appreciate the speed and quiet of solid state drives.  You cannot get the full benefit of a high performance desktop, laptop, or server without solid state disk technology since disk access is one of the greater limiting factors in what you can do on your computer today.  The cost of a solid state hard drive is now under $2 per gigabyte, while large traditional hard disks can reach all the way down to 5 cents per gigabyte.  That difference is significant, but, unless you are using massive amounts of storage, it should not stop you from using solid state drives now.  You will easily earn back the extra money you pay with productivity improvements in only a month or two.


Why NOT to Use an E Mail "I Am Out" Message

I never use "I am out" messages personally with my e mail or phones.  If you put a vacation e mail message on your home e mail address, you could be saying to someone "I am out.  Please burglarize my house while I am gone."  If you do this at the office, you could be saying "I am on vacation until next week.  In the meantime, if you want to sneak something past my coworkers and circumvent our security, this is a good time."  Such messages can help social engineers like Kevin Mitnick, who wrote the terrifying book "The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security", to more easily break through your security.  [I recommend security professionals and even non-professionals read this book, if only to hammer home how the weak link in computer security is the one typing at the keyboard.]  Of course, you need to decide whether your work requires such a message.  Most do not.

I also recommend against leaving an old user e mail account open, at least for more than a couple of days.  Cancel all of the list subscriptions coming into the account.  Inform everyone that person is no longer there.  Then remove the account and let the messages bounce.  This will immediately tell the people sending the mail that they need to resend their mail to someone else.  Do not forward the mail or keep that account open.  Open accounts can be used as a way to compromise your security.  Or these accounts can simply be a place where someone sends an important message and does not realize no one on your end saw it.

You might want to follow this advice, but at least I have warned you about a very common security issue.


Betting on the Future:  Beta Testing

Lately I have been doing quite a bit of beta testing for software developers.  I am the guinea pig that gets to try out "new and improved" software before it hits someone else's desktop.  There are reasons to have beta testers.  First, they often have a vested interest in seeing a new feature appear and have definite ideas of how it should work.  Second, they will put up with beta (equals broken or not ready for prime time) software to test it out.  Third, they will do things that programmers never thought of when designing the code and "break" it.  Fourth, they will ask questions and misunderstand explanations requiring another look at how to better get the message across when the product ships.  Fifth, they will use it in a range of environments and do a number of things the programmers cannot model in a clean test environment.  Beta testers serve somewhat the same function as the people I get to proofread Horse Sense before I send it out.  They help to determine how well the end product will be received by a larger audience.

Example--The IPAD (Iron Maiden)

I just finished a beta test of a unified secure server called the IPAD. It has no relation to the iPAD and had this name far before Apple started to put the small letter I in front of everything.  We are looking for a new name for it.  I like the Iron Maiden myself.  Beta testers get to comment on marketing, support, and sales issues as well. 

The web manageable IPAD server serves as a firewall, a router, a secure web server, a list manager, an FTP server, a DHCP server, a POP/SMTP mail server, a DNS server, and an antispam device.  It will handle 192 modems and 5 gigabit Ethernet interfaces.  You can even monitor vital statistics with SNMP, like how many e mails, spam and non-spam, you are getting.  Each server runs on top of a secure purpose built operating system.  All of these functions happen in less than 16 megabytes of RAM.  I know of ISPs using the IPAD that serve thousands of users and domains with a single box running on hardware you would laugh at if it were on your desktop.  I sent Horse Sense out to as many as 180,000 e mail addresses on a 33MHz Intel 486.  The current machine sending out these e mails is a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 because the old machine died.  I am now collecting feature requests for the next version.  Like all modern software, a new version is always in development.  I have been running an IPAD in my office for 15+ years.  It is nice to be able to literally talk to the developers and get them to develop a feature I want.  The price is right, too.  All this capability comes at a price less than what it costs me for a single application for my workstation.

Based on my use of this product, I think small businesses, schools, and other organizations that need as secure, inexpensive, powerful, and feature rich product to protect their network and provide secure services could really enjoy this product as either a product or a service.  In fact, if you only use *one* of the functions, like DNS or e mail, you could easily get your money's worth. 


Backup is costly in terms of time, effort, and money.  Off site storage can be particularly expensive.  But Intel has a new partnership with Symform that may change all that.  Symform has been having me test their latest on line storage product which seems to be a winner.  Technically, this is not a beta product as far as Symform is concerned, but Intel wanted to see if it was suitable for its resellers and a larger audience.  As a reseller, I tend to test all new products as if they were unfinished to find all the good and bad out before I have clients put them in production on their sites.  I encourage you to do the same.  Beta testing never ends and making comments on existing products and offering to become a beta tester is a good way to get what you want out of the next or even current version of a product.

Symform's support is good, just like it is for the IPAD.  You want security and reliability products that are central to your business to have good support.  The price is right.  No matter how much data you want to back up, the price is fixed.  And, the model is interesting.  You pay to back up a server or workstation.  That is it.  But.... You must also contribute storage space and bandwidth you own so that others can back up data to your equipment.  There is a centralized data center, but it is mainly there to coordinate accounting and where all the data is.  High capacity hard drives are inexpensive and network bandwidth may be plentiful and unused, so this can be a great fit for many organizations, especially schools and small businesses.  Storing data in data centers can be very expensive, so using your own storage is an interesting alternative.  Should you worry about security, reliability, and performance?  Well, these guys have really thought it out.  They assume the worst.  They assume that your the communications are insecure and that the storage locations are insecure and unreliable and have limited bandwidth.  To deal with these issues, they break up your files to be backed up into more manageable pieces.  They encrypt them with military grade AES 256 bit encryption before they are sent out of your network.  These pieces get stored all over the Internet in their encrypted form.  They use an algorithm that allows 32 different storage nodes to become unavailable and you will still be able to get your data back.  Performance is potentially improved versus storing data at a storage provider on the Internet because each location that has your data can send you data you need at the same time which eliminates a lot of performance bottlenecks.  The encryption and division of your backups make them very secure.  Their methods should pass any security audit.  If you wanted to be even more secure, you could encrypt your backup on your side before it is encrypted again and sent out to someone else's machine.

To be truthful, Symform is not really a backup application.  It is synchronization software.  You must have a backup mechanism that puts the files you want into directories you want backed up.  Any backup program, including just copying files to that directory, will work.  I have been using Symantec's Backup Exec System Recovery drive imaging product.  It produces very large backup files, but is dead simple to use, allows you to restore absolutely everything even to dissimilar hardware or a virtual image, allows for individual file or e mail recovery, and is fairly fast on my local network.  These large files are a problem when it comes to using Symform, though, because synchronizing them out to other machines on the Internet takes a long time.  Still, it works, and if I ever want to restore, because my ISP gives me a download speed that is a minimum of 5 times as fast as my upload speed, I can recover these large files more quickly than I backed them up.

You can contribute storage and bandwidth from anywhere, like your house.  You can even contribute for someone else, like for a laptop you want to back up.  Another interesting option is that you can synchronize a directory to another site that you own for a more rapid recovery or as a way to distribute data automatically.  If you have two locations or your boss wants to back up an image of everything to his house so that you do not even have to do a download if there is a data disaster, you can do it.

Secure data synchronization software like this belongs in most organizations.  Intel sees the future in it and has partnered with Symform to make it more available.  Automatic off site backup is a necessary part of your data protection strategy.  There are many backup options in the market and Iron Horse would be happy to discuss them with you.


Symantec is the biggest security software company in the world.  Their footprint means that they have products that have to work for your 80 year old mom and security professionals in governments.  Obviously, the customers will have very different needs.  Symantec spends unbelievable amounts of time testing its products for reliability, efficacy, and performance.  When it comes to businesses, Symantec has a lot more to worry about.  Businesses want to be able to tailor products to their needs, monitor and manage them across all their resources, use it with products that consumers would never touch, enforce policy, etcetera.  Symantec tests out some of its latest and greatest security technologies on consumers via its Norton products (see Horse Sense #88 Are You Testing Software for Someone Else? <>).  Many of these technologies end up in Symantec's corporate products.  Symantec's corporate beta programs test out these technologies, other technologies, and management features needed in the business world.  Symantec has asked me to comment on their corporate products more than once, and I have also supplied unasked for comments.  (grin)  Recently, Symantec asked me what my customers might want to see in an endpoint protection product.  I plan on telling you more about that in my next Horse Sense.  Even more interesting is they asked if I had clients who might want to test drive their next generation products in beta programs.

Good software and hardware engineers never rest on their laurels.  They examine what is and is not working well now and work with clients to develop more relevant products for the future. 

If you are interested in Symantec's offer to become a beta tester, please contact us.

If you want to ask about other hardware, software, or technology, or if you are interested in being a beta tester for someone else you know who to call....

©2011 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse