Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Saving money inside your wiring closet

Here is a brief exercise in how to save some money for your company, and make yourself a hero at the same time. Do a quick census of the gear inside all of your wiring closets. You don’t have to be too anal here: just quickly estimate the number of ports, regardless of whether or not they are in use. Now use some fudge factors for the number of watts per port – if you have this information, fine, otherwise for the purposes of this tally, use 50 watts for unpowered Ethernet and 500 watts for powered ports, and add in the power consumption figures for anything else that is plugged into an electrical outlet.

Now add up the kilowatt hours and multiply by the cost of electricity in your area. If you don’t know, say 15 cents per kwh. Surprised at how big this is? Now here is where the hero part comes into play: suggest that you replace some of this gear with switches that can turn themselves off during off-hours.

Hunh? “Our networks have to operate 24x7” you say. “We can’t turn anything off. What about the people that come in on the weekends?”

Still, think about it. I got the idea after visiting Adtran this week, and they were showing me some of their switches that do just that. You can set up profiles for particular ports on the switch to shut off at certain times of the day, or to provide less power to those ports that are just running to ordinary PC endpoints. You wouldn’t think this would add up to a lot of saved juice, but if you have a lot of powered Ethernet ports – say supporting Wifi access points and VOIP phones – it can really add up quickly, into the tens of thousands of dollars a year. This could easily pay for part of the upgrade to your infrastructure.

Switches aren’t the only things that can cycle their power loads down these days. Intel’s latest multicore chips have the ability to turn off several of their cores to save on electricity, or to funnel processing to particular tasks to match their computing loads. There are virtualization provisioning products that will automatically spin up virtual servers to match increased loads, and then spin them down when the loads drop.

It is funny, when you think about it. Going green these days means getting a more powerful box and turning stuff off. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Oh, and when you are done, ask your boss to give you at least a third of the savings as a bonus, and tell them I put you on to the idea. You can thank me later.

Friday, November 14, 2008

It takes a long-tailed village

You are by now no doubt familiar with the concept of the long tail, the ability of the Internet to support the most microcosmic segment, specifically targeting (say) yellow VW microbus owners or people that walk their cats on leashes or whatever oddities you can assemble. But I found myself in a conversation this week about a very different aspect of the long tail, with a deputy city manager of a small community outside of Columbus. As in Ohio.

I was in Columbus on behalf of their chamber of commerce, to visit with hi tech companies, old and new, big and small. I know, I get to go on some great junkets as a journalist. At least it wasn’t Yet Another Vegas Trip. And I actually had a good time, even got to visit a few data centers (and you know how much I love being on a raised floor, breathing in all that A/C) while I was there.

Columbus has a lot going for it as an IT destination. Cheap power, smart people, big college talent pool, and some high-profile companies that employ thousands of IT workers, including Nationwide, OCLC, and others. But it was my briefing with Dublin’s deputy city manager, Dana McDaniel, that stood out.

Dana was talking to us about how Dublin was trying to woo various hi tech companies there. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. Clean, white collar business, blah, blah, well educated, yada yada, high salaried this and that. But then he started talking about the long tail, and how he wasn’t focused on the Fortune 1000 or any other big-ticket company that could be wooed there with big tax breaks and other public give-backs. “I want the long tail,” he told us. “I want the two guys in their garage that will eventually expand and become the next big win.”

Those firms are a lot harder to find, and once you find them, they are a lot harder to keep in town. To demonstrate that what he was saying wasn’t just the usual politico hot air: he actually helped a 4-person firm stick around and now they are a 20-person firm, on the second floor above a Starbucks. (And they allow Starbucks in their town, too!)

You need to have a lot of different things that have to do with quality of life, such as a business district that has multiple eateries and bars (and with a town named Dublin, you can only imagine the choices), congestion-free travel to and from work, and mixed residential-business zones so people can live close by the office, once they move out of the garage and down the street.

Yes, you need great Internet infrastructure, and Dublin has their fiber rings, their connection to bandwidth hotels, and is even putting together muni WiFi that will cover not just the business parks but its subdivisions too. They even built a business “accelerator” that will rent out offices to up-and-coming businesses and has a full complement of services and IT support techs that are on premises. Those are the good things, the necessary things even, that today’s community needs if they are really going to make a go out of having IT people stick around, and attracting more of them from places that are high-cost, high-hassle like the coastal cities where we usually think all innovation happens in this country.

But there are more subtle things happening too. And this is where that whole long tail mumbo jumbo starts to be more meaningful. Dublin can piggy-back on the larger Columbus metro area that can fill in the gaps with people who have the right specialized knowledge that can help run companies. The area has begun a series of informal meetups and unconferences to bring together nerds of all walks of life. There is the benefit of having a big college and a federal research lab nearby but not too close, so that Dublin canpick up some of the crumbs of the attention, federal grants, and research projects that come into Columbus but not get bogged down into chasing the big ticket science that OSU and Battelle need to keep their lights on. And it helps to have a solid series of IT training classes, that are offered by TechColumbus, the downtown incubator and entrepreneurial engine that has established a branch office in Dublin.

So yes, it does take a village, to coin a phrase, one person at a time. But the next time you hear an economic development guy praise the long tail, stop and listen, because they so get what the next decade of employment opportunities is going to be.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The new real-time researcher

So hopefully you got some sleep last night after you voted, for those of you that live in America. But apart from the obvious result, our election had some other radical changes in how we consume information, and I wanted to share some thoughts. It was a historic night for these reasons, too.

The Internets have transformed those of us that are information junkies in a new way, to be our own real-time researchers, trend spotters and fact checkers. A combination of better search analytics, new technologies such as Twitter and live feeds, and even the relatively innocuous Facebook “I’ve voted” counter have put some very powerful tools in the hands of ordinary citizens.

It also helps that we had three relative rookies for our election-night network news anchors: while their talents (and take-home pay) are considerable, many of us haven’t had the relationship with Katie, Brian, and Charlie that we once had with Tom, Peter and Dan -- or even Walter, Chet and David. Part of this is the waning influence of network TV, part of it is the movement away from newspapers and newsmagazines. (US News and World Report going monthly? Who would have thought?)

But the real reason has to do with the fact that the technologies to enable our own exploration of the world have become easier and more powerful to use, and within our grasp, even if we don’t have exceptional search skills. Let’s examine each of the technologies that have contributed to this state of affairs.

First is the ability to keep on top of what people are Googling. In a post last month in the, Marshall Kirkpatrick writes how listeners were doing their own fact checking by Googling certain terms during the VP debates. By looking at the aggregated searches, we see that many people learned exactly which article of the Constitution covers the powers of the Vice President and that Biden got it wrong.

From the Google stats, we also see that Tina Fey has become a political personality, and indeed even more popular among searchers than Mr. Biden himself. Having watched many of the SNL skits, I found myself getting confused over who was the real Palin, and indeed didn’t do well on the Chicago Tribune’s photo quiz to distinguish the two women:,0,5534058.triviaquiz

Speaking of those SNL skits, how many of you first watched them online versus on your living room TV? What was curious for me was that I first went to YouTube to find the videos, only to realize that was posting them for the next-day audience on their own site. About time they figured out. How long did it take you to realize that as well? Maybe the networks finally understand the word-of-mouth day-after effects and can capture some of those page views for themselves. Do we really need an HD TV picture to see these videos when the postage-stamp a 320x240 portion of a Web browser can be just as satisfying?

In past elections, I was online most of the night, looking at the major network news Web sites, tracking the exit polls and ballots. Last night, I still did this, but there were other sites, such as, that aggregated historical information so I could put this into context, and see how voting patterns from previous elections have compared with this year’s. As deep as I wanted to dive, I could easily find it with a few mouse clicks. It made the broadcast blather from the major networks even more irrelevant to me.

Having waited in line for about 70 minutes to vote yesterday morning, I was curious to see how many people voted early in the day by watching Facebook’s real-time vote counter, which passed a million votes early in the day and topped out at somewhere around 4 million by the time the polls closed in the West. Granted, this counter was more of a stunt than any analytical tool, but it gave me a very real indication that yes, we as Americans (or at least the Americans that are Facebook active users who are registered) are voting – to the rate of several hundred every second, all day long.

What about Twitter and other live feeds? We could actually follow “reports” from various self-styled correspondents and what they found during the day. The local St. Louis paper hired a few students to do just that and you could read their Tweets here:

One of the students, Ian Darnell, summed it up this way: “This is it. This is our time. This is how history has unfolded before us.” He could have said historicity, which was one of the hot search terms for yesterday.

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.