Archive for October, 2019

21
Oct
19

Anniversary and some random thoughts

It’s amazing how fast time flies by, but yet another year has flown by! This month marks the 8th year of my blog, which seems like an awfully long time to be writing about anything at all really. I think part of the reason I keep it up is the enjoyment I get out of investigating and later writing about subjects I’m interested in. I have unfortunately been busy with work and kids and had to put some ideas I’ve had on the back burner, after all writing this is just a hobby.

Some thing I’m keeping in mind for the near future is making some content around retro-programming, for gwbasic in particular but also for other programming languages for old machines. I’d like to do this on youtube, but am yet to get required equipment (mainly a mic). I’ve been thinking about making video content for quite a while, but have been reluctant because of the over saturation in some area’s of interest I have, also I don’t like the sound of my own voice. On the other hand there isn’t much content out there about gwbasic other than a few not-so-great tutorials and sample programs.

I hit another road block with my Sparcstation as a desktop series, having trouble getting software to build. I’ve not powered on my machine for a while, but it’s something I intend on getting back to. I also think I’d like to cover some of the other machines I have in more detail, perhaps in a similar manner, but they need introductory posts to show the machines themselves. Good ideas but likely to come out slowly as I manage to find the time to do the work required.

I’m currently working on replacing my server again, not because it’s broken, but in an effort to reduce the energy consumption of the device. At idle it runs at about 60-70 watts, which doesn’t sound like much, but it can end up using between 130 and 151 Kilo Watt hours over a quarter (an electricity bill cycle). Which whilst not expensive compared to many devices is still significant and worth reducing. I’m working with a 10 year old Intel board and Q8430 CPU from a Medion PC that I have handy. I’m trying it to see if I can get much of a reduction as it has much better power management than the current machine. Alternatively I may go with a Raspberry Pi of some kind or a mini PC.

I’ve been keeping an eye out on the technology industry at large, I’m happy to see AMD is making the CPU market a bit more competitive again. For quite a while Intel dominated the space taking the lions share of the market almost everywhere. AMD has managed to not only become competitive in terms of performance, but has managed to make better performing chips (depending on workload) at a better price than Intel has been offering. Because of this they are getting some market share back which is good for everyone, especially consumers. It’s funny the reaction of some commentators and reviewers with click-baity titles such as “is Intel dying?”. Anyone with half a brain would know they aren’t and won’t in much the same way that AMD didn’t.

Rumours of Apple switching from X86 to ARM for its line of laptops are interesting but not unprecedented. They have switched architectures multiple times in the past. Given the potential advantages of ARM it is not surprising to hear of the switch. In the past few years Apple laptops have suffered design issues around the use of Intel chips, primarily the heat disipation and battery longevity of these devices. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with Intel parts, but more that the design priorities Apple has suit the ARM architecture more. I’ll be interested to see if they can manage to keep the laptops performance competitive and if there will be enough software support to make it viable. However at this stage no-one really knows what they have up their sleeve.

Microsoft releasing an Android based mobile device on the other hand was a little surprising but nice to see. Co-operation like this that would have been unimaginable in the past. I’m guessing the reasoning behind making an android device would likely have something to do with the poor market share that windows phone has had in the past and the popularity of the android platform. As far as mobile devices go it sounds intriguing, but it also signals a wider co-operation between Google and Microsoft that will improve both the Android and PC experience as far as interoperability goes.

I’ve noted quite a bit of advertisements around VPN services over the last few years, usually claiming their service is a good way of maintaining privacy It’s true in many cases that a VPN connection will increase privacy and security, especially on an public network/wifi where someone could be listening. It also can prevent your ISP from using information about your internet habits for whatever nefarious purpose they might have.

However they aren’t a perfect solution for privacy, they mostly protect you from your ISP (or others on your local network) observing your activity. With encryption of web traffic being almost ubiquitous traffic interception isn’t really an easy way to gather data about someone. Rather the web sites and services that you use are tracking you through other means such as cookies, user logins, and other information generally given freely. Facebook and Google are known to be able to track your activity even after leaving their websites, partly because many sites are integrating features of their platforms. Using them for authentication is an example. The risk of this happening is not influenced by using a VPN.

So I’d say that even if you’re using a VPN for some reason, it’s still prudent to use software features of your browser/apps to increase privacy where necessary. Just be aware that whilst a VPN is good at increasing your privacy, it’s not perfect by any means.

I could go on, but I’ve realised how long this is starting to get so I’ll wind things up. It’s funny how at first you can be short on ideas but once you get started you can’t stop. I’d like to thank all my readers for putting up with my spelling mistakes and poor grammar all this time, and of course for sticking around and reading and/or commenting.

01
Oct
19

Old Tech: The AccessGrid

Today I’d like to talk about an old technology that has mostly died off and I used to use rather extensively in my job. The AccessGrid as it was known was an advanced teleconferencing system used world-wide for remote teaching and academic collaboration. Rather than being one single technology such as Skype, it was a collection of open source software that worked together, the main client simply being the glue that co-ordinated the meeting system. The main software was initially created in 1998 by Argonne National Laboratory and maintained by them until it was later made open source and supported by the community.

I was involved in running one of the AccessGrid nodes for my local university, mostly for the purposes of remote teaching. The rooms (also known as nodes) were set up with the ideal that the technology should be as transparent as possible for students and teachers. Most sites had a technician (usually referred to as the operator) that ran the equipment so that participants in a session didn’t have to manage the technology on top of their normal activity. The operator also usually participated with the AG community at large, helping each other with technical issues and testing the software and hardware configuration of nodes. I was the operator for our node, and am still involved in supporting remote teaching today.

A Typical AccessGrid node at University of Newcastle Australia

The room was equipped similarly to a class room, but with extra equipment to capture as much as possible. The front of the room had smart boards for writing notes and displaying lecture slides. For tutorial sessions students both remote and local could present solutions on the smart boards, although the exact technical solution used to provide this varied depending on the participating nodes. We had a number of cameras so all the local participants could be seen, and ceiling and lapel mics so students and teachers could be heard. These would usually be adjusted to some degree to suite each session, although sensible defaults would usually work fairly well.

Audio and Video was sent between clients using RTP (Real-time Transport Protocol) using Multicast UDP packets to transport the data. Because support for Multicast traffic isn’t universal and had been blocked at some institutions Unicast bridges were set up. These bridges allowed people with out Multicast support on their local network to connect to meetings, these bridges were run by nodes which had working Multicast support. Users could manually select which bridge to use to avoid high latency or traffic load.

Rat (robust audio tool) was the program that sent and received audio. It had options for many different bit rates and audio encodings and worked quite well on most platforms and audio equipment. It did have some basic echo canceling capability, but that usually wasn’t used as most nodes opted for hardware based echo canceling with devices such as the ClearOne XAP800 which generally did a better job. A notable feature of the software was the ability to tune the audio volume of each participant individually, which made it much easier to cope with audio issues as it could be adjusted on the fly. This unfortunately seems to be an unusual feature on modern communication software which often doesn’t allow this to be easily done.

Vic (Video conferencing tool) did the video portion of the session, by using multiple instances of this program it was possible for each node to transmit and receive video from multiple sources, usually cameras but also live screen captures from another program. This allowed a Node to send a video of the teacher, any local audience members, and multiple screen captures. Large sessions with many participants could have a large number of video streams, I remember seeing 15-20 streams for the bigger events. Generally it scaled fairly well, but you needed a decent internet connection.

The AccessGrid for Australian universities died rather unceremoniously and suddenly when the server was switched off most of the way through semester 2 in 2014. The person who was maintaining the server had left the institution where it was hosted, so when their server room was renovated it was decommissioned without any plans to reinstate the service. This happened with no announcements or notice, just one day it was suddenly dead. This left the still significant number of people using it for remote teaching scrambling to find alternative solutions as quickly as possible, thankfully most people managed, but it wasn’t fun.

Had the server not died, would the AccessGrid still be in use today? The answer is probably not, but maybe. As a technology it was harder to use and required significant technical knowledge. Modern software has largely taken that complexity and difficulty away, unfortunately taking some of the flexibility away with it. Commercial software often requires a license fee for the server at least, but in some cases also for the client software. This extra cost was off-putting to smaller institutions who don’t have the larger resources others do, so that may have motivated some to stick with it.

So why wax all nostalgic about it? Partly because no-one else has and the foot print the AccessGrid has on the internet is gradually fading. Also it was an interesting and formative technology in the electronic teaching space. It achieved results that at the time were not possible with other technologies enabling students access to courses they otherwise couldn’t reach, and Lecturers access to a wider audience. For me personally it was memorable being a part of the community and making the technology work. Whilst it had its problems it was interesting, functional, and flexible.




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