Fibre to the community; business hubs; and killing the commute

Our country desperately needs investment in infrastructure yet we can’t afford it, either politically, financially, or environmentally. At the same time, driven by rising house prices and other considerations, people are living ever further from their workplace, with consequential impacts on family life and local communities. So what can we do to redress the balance?

In a word: localisation.

Or, in a few more words: stay at home; cut down travel; and rebuild communities.

For years now, we’ve been hearing (usually from companies selling tools to enable remote working) that teleworking is the future. It is, or at least working remotely for part of the time can be (people still need human contact) but we’re constrained by our communications infrastructure.

Super fast broadband services are typically only available in metropolitan areas, with fibre to the home (FTTH) or even fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) a distant dream for rural communities, even those that are a relatively short distance from major cities.

So why not create business hubs in our small towns and villages – office space for people to work, without having to travel for miles, taking up space on a train or a road, and polluting our environment?

Local councils (for example) can provide infrastructure – such as desks and Internet access (a connection to one central point may be more cost effective than wiring up every home) – and employees from a variety of companies have the benefit of a space to network, to share ideas, to work, without the need to travel long distances or the isolation and poor communications links (or family interruptions) encountered at home.

The location might be a library, a community centre, a coffee shop, the village pub (which desperately needs to diversify in order to survive) – all that’s really needed is a decent Internet connection, some desks, maybe meeting rooms and basic facilities.

Meanwhile, instead of spending our money in the coffee shops of London (or wherever), local businesses stand to benefit from increased trade (fewer commuters means more people in the town). Local Post Offices may become economically viable again, shops get new trade and new businesses spring up to serve the community that was previously commuting to the city.

Cross-pollination in the workplace (conversations at the hub) may lead to new relationships, partnerships with other companies and generally improved collaboration.

Families benefit too – with parents working closer to home, there’s time to see their children (instead of saying goodnight over the phone on a long commute after another late night in the office); and, generally, there’s an improvement in social well being and community involvement.

The benefits to the community and to society at large are potentially huge, but it needs someone (which is why I suggest local government, although central government support may be required) to kick-start the initiative.

If foundations like Mozilla can create Mozilla Spaces in our cities, why can’t we create spaces in our small towns and villages? Spaces to network. Spaces to work. Spaces to collaborate. Spaces to invigorate. To invigorate individuals and to rebuild our communities.

It all seems so logical, so what have I missed?

Starting to play with the Internet of things

Unlike some people, who find it invasive, I love the concept of the Internet of things. I’m truly excited by some of the possibilities that a world driven by data opens up. Sure, there are issues to overcome (primarily around privacy and connectivity) – but anyone who believes their data isn’t already being captured by service providers (even if those providers don’t yet know how to handle the massive volumes of data) is in for a shock. So why not embrace the possibilities and use our increasingly smart world to our collective advantage?

In my recent presentation to the BCS Internet Special Interest group, I referred to the Technology Strategy Board‘s Future Internet Report, which talks about [emphasis added by me]:

“An evolving convergent Internet of things and services that is available anywhere, anytime as part of an all-pervasive omnipresent socio–economic fabric, made up of converged services, shared data and an advanced wireless and fixed infrastructure linking people and machines to provide advanced services to business and citizens.”

The report also acknowledges the need for more than just “bigger pipes” to handle the explosion in data volumes. We do need a capable access mechanism but we also need infrastructure for the personalisation of cloud services and for machine to machine (M2M) transactions; and we also need convergence to enable a transformational change in both public and private service delivery.

That’s the big picture but scaling back down to a personal level, one of my colleagues, David Gentle (@davegentle – who happens to be the main author of Fujitsu’s Technology Perspectives microsite) highlighted a site called Pachube to me last week. I first came across Pachube a few months back but [partly because it used to be a chargeable service (it became free at the start of this month)] it got added to my “list-of-things-to-have-a-better-look-at-one-day” (that day rarely comes, by the way!). This time I had a better look and I found it to be pretty cool.

Pachube is basically a cloud-based broker for connected devices with a web service to manage real-time data and a growing ecosystem of applications to feed and consume data. That sounded like it might need some programming (i.e. could be difficult for me these days) but then I found a method to hook an energy monitor up to the web, with no coding required!

I’ve written before about the EnergyFit (Current Cost) power meter that E-ON sent me. I wasn’t a fan of E-ON’s software so I hooked it up to Google PowerMeter for a while, but that service has closed down (along with Microsoft’s Hohm service – which I don’t think even made it to the UK). Using a USB to serial driver and a companion application I now have one of my computers feeding data from my Current Cost meter to the Pachube website, where it gets transformed into JSON, XML or CSV format and “magic” can be performed. I used the Mac OS X software versions of the driver and the application but there are also Windows (driver/application) and Linux (driver/application) variants that I have not tested. The process of setting up a Pachube feed has also changed slightly since the original guidance was written but the basic steps are:

  1. Install the USB-serial drivers.
  2. Install the application
  3. Run the application and select the appropriate serial port (for me, on my Mac, that is /dev/tty.usb-serial).
  4. Create a feed (a push feed – and however many times I turn it private it seems to switch back to public…).
  5. Paste the XML version of the feed into the application.
  6. Set up a secure sharing (API) key (you probably don’t want to use the master key) and paste it into the application.
  7. Save preferences and wait for the application to start feeding data, at which point the feed should show as live

The application I used and the Pachube website seem to work together to configure the datastreams within the feed (one for temperature and one for power) and it’s all set to go.

Once the feed is live, there are a load of apps listed on the Pachube website with everything from graphs and visualisations to mapping tools and augmented reality. I decided to create a page to display some of these, starting out with a customisable PNG-based graph from my feed. That worked, so I added another, together with a PachuDial and a couple of PachuBlog gadgets (sadly, these are Flash-based, so don’t work on the iPad…). Next I created a second feed to consume the power usage from the first one and measure the associated carbon footprint.

Having played around with energy usage, I found that I could also use Pachube to monitor my Twitter account (a pull feed this time) – which might be useful too.

Now I’ve mastered the basics with my Current Cost meter, I might try some home automation using Arduino devices – although that looks to have quite a steep learning curve on the electronics front… In the meantime, you can see the Home electricity usage and Twitter statistics pages that I created using just the Pachube platform and some basic HTML.

[Update 30 November 2011: added comment about Pachube becoming free to use]

Re-architecting for the cloud and lower costs

One of the presentations I saw at the recent London Cloud Camp (and again at  Unvirtual) was Justin McCormack (@justinmccormack)’s lightning talk on “re-architecting for the ‘green’ cloud and lower costs” (is re-architecting a word? I don’t think so but re-designing doesn’t mean the same in this context!).

Justin has published his slides but he’s looking at ways to increase the scalability of our existing cloud applications. One idea is to build out parallel computing systems with many power-efficient CPUs (e.g. ARM chips) but Amdahl’s law kicks in so there is no real performance boost by building out – in fact, the line is almost linear so there is no compelling argument.

Instead, Justin argues that we currently write cloud applications that use a lot of memory (Facebook is understood to have around 200TB of memory cache). That’s because memory is fast and disk is slow. But with the advent of solid state devices we have something in between (that’s also low-power).

Instead of writing apps to live in huge RAM caches, we can use less memory, and more flash drives. The model is  not going to be suitable for all applications but it’s fine for “quite big data” – i.e. normal, medium latency applications. A low-power cloud is potentially a low-cost middle ground with huge cost saving potential, if we can write cloud applications accordingly.

Justin plans to write more on the subject soon – keep up with his thoughts on the  Technology of Content blog.

Connecting an E.ON EnergyFit Monitor to Google PowerMeter

The energy company that I buy my electricity and gas from (E.ON) is currently running an “EnergyFit” promotion where they will send you an energy monitor for free. A free gadget sounded like a good idea (I have a monitor but it’s the plugin type – this monitors the whole house) so I applied for one to help me reduce our family’s spiraling energy costs (and, ahem, to help us reduce our environmental footprint).

The EnergyFit package appeared on my doorstep sometime over the weekend and setup was remarkably easy – there’s a transmission unit that loops around the main electricity supply cable (without any need for an electrician) and a DC-powered monitor that connects to this using a wireless technology called C2, which works on the 433MHz spectrum (not the 2.4GHz that DECT phones, some Wi-Fi networks, baby monitors, etc. use).  Within a few minutes of following E.ON’s instructions, I had the monitor set up and recording our electricity usage.

The monitor is supplied with E.ON’s software to help track electricity usage over time and it seems to work well – as long as you download the data from the monitor (using the supplied USB cable) every 30 days (that’s the limit of the monitor’s internal memory).

I wondered if I could get this working with Google PowerMeter too (Microsoft Hohm is not currently available in the UK) and, sure enough, I did.  This is what I had to do:

  1. Head over to the Google PowerMeter website.
  2. Click the link to Get Google PowerMeter.
  3. At this point you can either sign up with a utility company, or select a device.  The E.ON-supplied device that I have is actually from a company called Current Cost so I selected them from the device list and clicked through to their website.
  4. Once on the Current Cost website, click the button to check that your device will work with Google PowerMeter.
  5. The E.ON EnergyFit monitor is an Envi device – click the Activate button.
  6. Complete the registration form in order to download the software required to connect the monitor to Google.
  7. Install the software, with includes a registration process with Google for an authorisation key that is used for device connection.
  8. After 10 minutes of data upload, you should start to see your energy usage appear on the Google PowerMeter website.

Of course, these instructions work today but either the Google or Current Cost websites are subject to change – I can’t help out if they do but you should find the information you need here.

There are some gotchas to be aware of:

  • The monitor doesn’t keep time very well (mine has drifted about 3 minutes a day!).
  • Configuring the monitor (and downloading data to the E.ON software) requires some arcane keypress combinations.
  • According to the release notes supplied with the Current Cost software, it only caches data for 2 hours so, if your PC is switched off (perhaps to save energy!), Google fills in the gaps (whereas the E.ON Energy Fit software can download up to 30 days of information stored in the monitor).
  • You can’t run both the E.ON EnergyFit and the Current Cost Google PowerMeter applications at the same time – only one can be connected to the monitor.

If your energy company doesn’t supply power monitors, then there are a variety of options for purchase on the Google PowerMeter website.

Using cows to measure the environmental benefits associated with server virtualisation…

Much is made of the environmental benefits of server consolidation using virtualisation technologies so Microsoft and Alinean have put together a website to create a report of the likely environmental benefits of implementing Microsoft Virtualization technologies. I don’t know how accurate it is (the point of using Alinean is that there should be sizable amount of independent market research behind this) but, ultimately, the goal here is to sell products (in this case Windows Server 2008 with Hyper-V).

Regardless of the serious environmental and economical qualities of the Hyper-Green site that Microsoft and Alinean have put together, it’s not a patch (humour wise) on the Virtualisation Cow site that the Australian-based virtualisation consultancy Oriel have created, based on using HP server hardware and VMware Virtual Infrastructure software. The Oriel site may not produce a nice report based on market research from IDC and others but I’d rather express my greenhouse gas savings in terms of cows any day!

(This post is dedicated to Patrick Lownds – joint leader of the Microsoft Virtualization UK User Group – who commented at today’s Microsoft Virtualization Readiness training for partners that he was sure this would appear on my blog… it would be a shame to disappoint him…).

How much electricity does your home IT use?

Last month I commented on minimising man’s effect on the planet and, whilst I’m in favour of reducing carbon emissions, much is being made of a few high-profile but relatively low-impact issues and governments are doing little to tackle the little things that can really make a difference.

One of those things we can all do is to examine the amount of electricity that we use – because there is direct link between electricity generation and carbon emissions (and, here in the UK, we have precious-little hydro- and solar-powered infrastructure so much is being made of wind, which is inefficient and variable, so still needs to be backed up with a firm source of energy – generally coal, gas or nuclear).

I imagine that, as IT administrators and enthusiasts, many of this blog’s readers have a collection of devices running a home IT infrastructure that would be more suitable for a small business. Back in January I bought a small server to migrate the workload away from my many PCs but my (capped rate) electricity bill has still risen – largely because I haven’t yet managed to move the workload away from the old kit that is destined to be turned off. Even if you don’t have a stack of IT kit running in your garage/cupboard-under-the-stairs-which-acts-as-the-home-data-centre, the chances are that you work from home sometimes – saving money and the reducing the emissions caused by travel – but distributing your employer’s energy usage across many homes (meanwhile the lights are still on and the air-con is still running back in the office).

So how much power does your IT use? Well, armed with a simple power monitor from Maplin, this is what I found:

Device Power (“on”) Power (“off”) Power (“standby”)
10 year-old PC (Compaq DeskPro EN6350: Pentium 3, 512MB RAM, 20GB HDD) 44W 5W
5 year-old PC (Compaq Evo D500: Pentium 4 1.7GHz, 512MB RAM, 20GB HDD) 50-100W 3-4W
Modern notebook PC (Apple MacBook: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD) 22W 1W
Server (Dell PowerEdge 840: Quad-core Intel Xeon 2.13GHz, 8GB RAM, 1.1TB storage) 100W 10W
15″ LCD Monitor 25W 1W 1W
20″ LCD monitor 42W 2W 2W
Inkjet all-in-one printer/fax/scanner/copier (HP OfficeJet 6310) 8W (16W when printing)
Laser printer (HP LaserJet 2200dn) 10W (600W when printing)
Fast Ethernet Switch (3Com 3300) 45W
Gigabit Ethernet Switch (Cisco 3750) 65W
Unmanaged Ethernet hub (NetGear EN108) 2W
Unmanaged Gigabit Ethernet switch (NetGear GS108) 5W
Desk lamp 25W 1W
Nokia mobile phone charger 3W 0W
24″ CRT Widescreen TV 80W (average) 2W 4W

MaplinI’m no electrical engineer but there are some surprises there for me. My mobile phone charger doesn’t use any power when it’s not charging (contrary to popular belief) but it seems my desk lamp does! Turning off my monitors at night seems to make no difference to their power draw, so I should really remove the plug from the socket (as should I for the TV). Meanwhile my recent switch from a laser printer to an inkjet might save some power (depending on the amount of printing I do) but what about the environmental cost of all those ink cartridges? As for the networking kit – my unmanaged switches are not only fanless (i.e. silent) but they use significantly less power too.

Of course, not all devices are equal. When I last visited my Grandmother, I was alarmed to find that her television was still “on” when it was on standby – the screen was off but I could still hear the sound being broadcast on the last channel she had been watching. And my 10-year-old Sony Trinitron Widescreen CRT TVs are probably more efficient than today’s 100Hz High Definition LCD displays – they’ll probably last longer too, which is why I’m not getting rid of them just yet.

As for that pile of PCs running a “data centre” in the garage, it seems that my new server is reasonably efficient in comparison but it will still draw 2.4kWh a day – at around £0.15 per unit (it’s not that simple because some units are charged at a lower rate than others) that’s costing me £0.36p a day. That doesn’t sound much until you realise that works out as £131 a year if the server is running 24×7 – and that equates to 0.377 tonnes of CO2 [source: Carbon Footprint]. It looks like I’d better get out and plant some more trees…

So, regardless of whether or not you believe in “green IT”, you can save some money by switching off some of this kit when it’s not in use. Modern operating systems have power-saving options – and technologies like Wake On LAN (WOL) allow us to bring a device back online when it is required. You need to apply some common sense too – turning off the VCR at the mains socket won’t let the device do what it is intended to do (i.e. record TV programmes) but does the microwave in the kitchen need to be on all the time just to run a digital clock (another 2W)?

If you can’t get your head around saving the planet – forget the “greenwashing” and think about saving some money instead.

World Environment Day 2008

Today is World Environment Day 2008 – a day for promoting environmental awareness with the aim of moving towards a low carbon economy.

Generally, I’m in favour of reducing carbon emissions. Regardless of whether you believe that global warming is a man-made phonomenon (not everyone does) the idea of pumping out fewer harmful gasses just seems to be the right thing to do – why would you do anything else?

Unfortunately, governments and businesses can harness people’s good intentions and use it to further their own causes. It seems that the UK Government, for example, is hoping that rising fuel prices and increased pressure to adapt green travel initiatives will avoid the need to invest in the nation’s infrastructure – meanwhile our roads are falling apart, trains are full (and the service is variable) and if you live outside a city then public transport is not generally practical. Then there’s the whole “green” energy issue. The windfarm that is being forced upon local people where I live sounds great. At least it does until you realise that it wouldn’t be viable without massive subsidy (because north-east Buckinghamshire is not a very windy place – even if the UK is as a whole) and that those subsidies (paid for by consumers who are already struggling with rising energy prices) are being pushed through a complicated chain of investments back to companies based in the Bahamas and the Marshall islands (both considered to be tax havens). How cynical is that?

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t all do our bit. Hopefully I’ll write a bit soon about my investigation into energy usage for some of my IT – looking at the items that consume the most power and how best to reduce the markwilson.it carbon footprint. I do find it a little odd though that so many companies are adopting the “Please consider the environment – do you really need to print this email?” message and including it in their e-mail signatures (including where I work – where, paradoxically, many of our printers are old and inefficient and very few them support double-sided printing…). Think Before You Print But do people really print their e-mail? (I admit that I do sometimes print documents that I’m reviewing because it’s easier to read in print than on the screen). Regardless, I preferred to use the slightly punchier “Be green: keep it on the screen” line until I saw one of my colleagues from down under using a “Think before you print” logo which I’ve since adopted – much broader in scope than just not printing e-mail.

One thing’s for sure – there are very few “right” decisions on green issues. Not so much black and white but with many grey shades in between (perhaps that should be not so much forest green or spring green but emerald, jade and lime). Sometimes, it’s difficult to know what the right choice is… for instance, should I buy fair trade produce and help out poor farmers in developing nations – or should I stick to local produce, and reduce my food mileage? I guess it all depends on your point of view.

Leon Hickman: A Good Life - the Guide to Ethical LivingIn the meantime, a good read if you are interested in the whole idea of sustainable living (I even started to grow my own vegetables this year!) is A Good Life – the guide to ethical living, by Leo Hickman.

Recycling old CDs/DVDs and tapes

Recycle now(Recycle Now is a UK website – United States readers can find out more about acting in an environmentally-friendly manner at Earth 911)

Leo Hickman: A Good Life - the Guide to Ethical LivingRecently, there have been a few posts on this site that aim to encourage reuse and recycling within our industry. It’s not that I’m going “green” – I’ve actually been interested in sustainability for a while now (and I recommend reading A Good Life – the guide to ethical living, by Leon Hickman). It’s not even about climate change – maybe mankind is warming up the planet with possible catastrophic consequences but maybe it’s just nature. One thing it’s almost impossible to argue with is that the world’s resources are finite and my personal belief is that we all have a duty to use those resources in the best way possible (well, ideally not to use them at all… but you get my drift).

Oh sure, I’m no saint (my family uses two cars and my kids use disposable nappies for starters) but there are things that we can all do and, whilst I don’t know the situation for any overseas visitors to this blog, here in the UK, the Government does little except pay lip service to environmental issues (and don’t get me started on wind “farms”).

Anyway, as part of my ongoing clearout of “stuff” from my loft/garage/office, I was about to throw away something in the region of 300 CD/DVDs (not music ones, just old software betas and demos, Microsoft TechNet CDs, etc.) and thought “these must be recyclable”. Well, it turns out they are (the United States Environmental Protection Agency has also produced a poster which demonstrates the life of a CD or DVD, from initial materials acquisition, through to reuse, recycling or disposal) and, even though my local authority only recycles the most basic of items, I found out about The Laundry (and it seems that they will accept CDs, DVDs, CD-Rs, VHS and compact cassettes for recycling from anyone, including the jewel cases and inlays).

The Laundry collectionThe Laundry is an excellent idea, because for as much as consumers control the amount of landfill waste that we produce, our hands are largely tied by local authorities that don’t recycle all items that it is possible to recycle (for example, mine won’t accept certain types of plastics, aerosols, Tetra Paks, etc. for recycling – even though the links I just provided prove that they can be recycled), meaning that consumers have to find another outlet for this type of waste (and most won’t bother). Businesses have an even bigger problem as many local authorities won’t accept anything but landfill waste from them, so they end up throwing away recyclable items (and paying for the privilege). By providing a weekly kerbside collection service for small businesses in London, The Laundry has the potential to really make a difference – I’d love to see them expand nationwide.

The next time I’m in East London, I’ll be dropping off my old CDs and DVDs at The Laundry. As for the packaging, there’s an amusing discussion on what to do with the plastic spindles that blank CD-Rs are sold on at the How can I recycle this? site.

Freecycle

RecyclingLast week, I wrote about my dilemma as to whether or not to retain my old technical notes or to recycle them. After this my loft-and-garage-cleansing-clear-out continued but, even after recycling everything that could be considered household waste (apparently the bin men were a little surprised by the huge stack of recycling sacks at the end of our drive yesterday), I was left with a pile of old computers, 802.11b wireless LAN kit, network cards/modems, a broken UPS and a broken lawnmower.

The thing is that all this stuff must have some value to someone and to let it end up as landfill (or, even worse, being recycled in an exploitative manner) was just wrong. After a lot of googling, I discovered that my computers were too old even for charities (the Donate a PC service has published some general advice) and that the WEEE regulations have massively limited the options for disposal of such equipment; however, I did find a list of UK computer recyclers and refurbishers courtesy of Waste Online. Then, I discovered Freecycle.

FreecycleBuilt around the Yahoo! Groups system, Freecycle is a place to give or receive what you have and don’t need or what you need and don’t have – a free cycle of giving which keeps stuff out of landfills (note that it is not intended as a place to just go get free stuff for nothing). I joined my local group (in order to do that, I needed to register for a Yahoo! account) and offered my unwanted items. What amazed me is, once my post had been moderated, just how quickly I received a stack of responses for equipment which I considered to be junk. Of course, I’d been a bit stupid and hadn’t realised that those responses were going to a new Yahoo! Mail account that had been set up for me (doh!) but once I sussed that, I was able to arrange collection/delivery and feel that I’d helped someone at the same time as doing a little bit to preserve the environment (of course, cutting down on the original production of waste would be far more effective).

It is often said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and I was only to pleased to let my old kit go to someone who could make good use of it. Next time you want to get rid of something that won’t sell on eBay (or are feeling benevolent enough to just give it away instead of selling it), check out your local Freecycle network.

Retain or recycle?

Recycle nowIn a few months time, I’m hoping that we will be able to convert our loft to a new guest room/my office (den); however that means that I need to do some serious rationalisation of the amount of “stuff” we have accumulated. I did sort out a lot when my second son was born and my wife and I started sharing an office but there are so many things I’ve been keeping “just in case I need them”. For example, old text books from ‘uni – with the rapid pace of development in IT it seems highly unlikely that they will be relevant today but it seems a shame to let them go.

I have started to move in the right direction as, this morning, a whole load of course notes from Microsoft official curriculum courses went into recycling sacks based on the fact that they date back to the mid-late 90s and relate to unsupported technologies:

  • 687C – Supporting Microsoft Windows NT core technologies;
  • 688C – Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP in Microsoft Windows NT 4.0;
  • 730C – Fundamentals of Microsoft Exchange Server 4.0;
  • 758C – Supporting Microsoft Internet Information Server 2.0;
  • 973C – Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5 series – design and implementation;
  • 1100B – Upgrading to Microsoft Windows NT 5.0;
  • 1267B – Planning and implementing Active Directory;
  • 1560A – Updating support skills from Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 to Microsoft Windows 2000;
  • 1561A – Designing a Microsoft Windows 2000 directory services infrastructure;
  • 1562A – Designing a Windows 2000 networking services infrastructure;
  • 1563A – Designing a change and configuration management infrastructure for Microsoft Windows 2000 professional;
  • 1579A – Accelerated training for updating support skills and designing a directory services infrastructure for Microsoft Windows 2000.

It feels good to have such a clearout but what if I need those notes? Sure, the likelihood of me implementing NT 4.0/Exchange 4.0 or even Windows 2000/Exchange 5.5 these days is pretty slim (and they’ve all been stored in boxes in the loft since 2001), but I just might want to look back at what Microsoft were recommending in those days! I’m in a bit of a dilemma here – am I throwing away a piece of IT history, or just reversing a dangerous tendency to hoard? As there is no-where at work for me to store this stuff, the only other option is to buy a bigger house!