To home lab or not to home lab

As I often do, I am again debating my need for a home lab.  My job is highly technical, to take technology architecture and tie it all together with the strategic goals of my customers.  Keeping my technical skills up to date is a full time job in and of itself, and begs the question, should I build out a home lab, or are my cloud based labs sufficient.

One of the perks to working at a large company is the ability to use our internal lab systems.  This can also include my laptop with VMware Workstation or Fusion product which affords some limited testing capabilities, mostly due to memory constraints.  Most of the places I have been have had great internal labs, demo gear, etc, which has been nice.  I have often maintained my own equipment as well, but to what end.  Keeping the equipment up to date becomes a full time job, and adds little value to my daily job.

With the competition in cloud providers, many providers will provide low or no cost environments for testing.  While this is not always ideal, for the most part, we are now able to run nested virtual systems, testing various hypervisors, and other solutions.  Many companies are now providing virtual appliance based products which enable us to stay fairly up to date.

Of course one of my favorites is VMware’s Hands on Labs.  In fairness I am a bit biased, working at VMware, and with the hands on labs team as often as I can.  Since a large majority of what I do centers around VMware’s technology, I will often run through the labs myself to stay sharp on the technology.

While the home lab will always have a special place in my heart, and while I am growing a rather large collection of raspberry pi devices, I think my home lab will be limited to smaller lower power devices for IoT testing for the moment.  While always subject to change, it is tough to justify the capital expenditure when there are so many good alternatives.

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To home lab or not to home lab

Technical Presentations: stop waiting, just get started.

As I write this, I am leaving VMworld 2016. It has been an amazing conference, I was able to reconnect with friends, work in the Hands on Labs, and present a session focused on security in healthcare. This is my second year presenting at VMworld, another year of struggling to meet deadlines, building slides, and trying to make sure I was ready. I wanted to share my experience, my struggles, and my opinion on this, mostly to provide the community with some encouragement to get up and share your knowledge with the rest of us.

What topic would you want to listen to?

 

The best sessions I have found started with a conversation. This year, I was talking with my manager, bemoaning the lack of security in technical architectures. Sure we threw in the checkbox items, but we missed the larger picture. We always assumed security was a product, missing the point that it was a design principle. After some heated debate, we realized that almost every part of the VMWare product set related to security. I am not a security specialist, which we decided made the messaging even more powerful.

 

When you are thinking about what to present, think about what interest you. Make your presentations credible, make them interesting to you. If you are presenting something you are passionate about, you are going to be more engaging. The best presentations involve the speaker making wild gestures, modulating their voice, and end with heated friendly discussions. Passion is everything, and if you believe in what you are saying, the passion should be natural.

 

Ask for help!

 

One of my biggest mistakes this year has been not asking for help. I took on too many tasks, spent too much time debating content with internal teams who wanted to help, and didn’t ask for the help I could have used. I work in a company full of amazing smart people. I have met so many people on Twitter and other medium who would have loved to help. I wrote a majority of the presentation myself, and waited far too long to get more eyes on. The best thing I did was to join a local Toastmasters group which did help me with the speaking skills.

 

We have all started somewhere, and nearly all of us want to help. There are more opportunities than every to be involved in community. Having a speaking mentor, using Toastmasters, looking within your team are all great ways to get some help. There is no weakness in admitting you need help, and it is a great way to meet new people who often become life long friends.

 

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse, then Rehearse some more

 

I can’t say it enough. Knowing your content is key. I am very cautious about memorizing my content, but I know the slides inside and out. I write out an outline with key phrases to jog my memory. By the time I got to VMworld I had rehearsed so many times my brain hurt. When I got on stage, I knew my slides, I knew my content, and I still forgot half the things I wanted to say. Imagine if I had failed to rehearse.

 

Rehearsing is not fun. Very few people enjoy standing in front of a mirror, or a camera, practicing their content over and over. Having someone give you feedback is thought to take, especially when you pour yourself into a presentation, but it sure beats getting negative feedback from your audience.

 

One of my favorite parts about being in the technology field is being a part of this community. Every conference, no matter how good the sessions are, the best thing is the reunion with all the people I have worked with and met over the years. While we may give each other a bad time, we are a big community, and we are all here to support each other. Presenting can be a terrifying thing, but all of us have an important story to share that will help someone else. Give back to the community, your community by getting involved. Tell your story, and grow your career, there are so many of us who want to help you, so what are you waiting for?
Technical Presentations: stop waiting, just get started.

Ubiquiti’s Amplifi: My first install

I have to admit, I am becoming a bit of a Ubiquiti Fan Boy.  Since I started moving my family to all streaming media, wireless has been a huge challenge.  Trying to get internet to every corner of the house, without running cable through the walls, caused me to try out a number of products.  While most had a simple manageable interface most fell down on performance or features.  Last week, based on my recommendation, a friend of my wife purchased and asked me to install it for her to resolve her poor wireless coverage.

Initial Setup

The initial setup was pretty simple.  It consists of a base router/access point.  Once I had plugged that in and restarted the cable modem, I was prompted to download the app.  It nearly immediately found the wireless system, and walked me through a simple setup wizard.  The longest part of the install was the update.  All said and done the system was up and running, with both wireless extenders appropriately placed  in around 5 min.  I had her test the most remote TV with Netflix, and the most remote computer to validate.  The improvement in service was instant for her.

Management Interface

The management interface was very simple and intuitive.  Everything was available on my iPhone, no web interface to speak of, but really not necessary.  The main screen of the app displays the status of the main device and the two extenders.  This leads me to believe that it is unlikely there will ever be more than 2 extenders, which is probably sufficient for most home users.

The guest network was particularly interesting, the ability to schedule the guest ssid made it unique.  The thought being that if you have guests over, you can schedule the guest wireless for a few hours and have it shutoff automatically when they are gone.  The wireless device map shows who is connected to the network, not unique, but it is much simpler to use, and far more accurate than previous devices I have seen.

Limitations

As with any product, there is always room for improvement.  One of the things I would have liked to see what a bit more on the traffic analytics, and more specifically restrictions and parental controls.  A number of the “mesh wireless” competitors are adding these in as software updates, so I would think that this will come in a future release, but it would have been a huge win for Ubiquiti if they had brought this in the initial offering.  It can be done, but it is not intuitive for the audience they intend the product for.

The app is great, but I would have liked to see a full web client with all the features of the app.  The concept of mobile first is great, but sometimes when I am working, I don’t want to dig out my phone to make changes.  It is great to be able to just open a new tab and make any changes right there.

 

Which leads to remote management.  This one is not a huge issue for most users, including the target audience, but for those of us who travel for work, and manage our home network, and home networks of our family, having remote access to the network is fairly important.  It actually caused me to choose a Ubiquiti’s Unifi system over Amplifi for my mother who lives 2 hours away.  I did not want to explain to her how to manage wifi on an app, it is easier to let her focus on facebook and pictures of the grandkids.

 

I try not to do many product reviews, but I felt like this one was worth the time to write up.  Ubiquiti has really done a great job here, it won’t replace my Unifi system at home, but if they had the Amplifi system available when I installed it last year, I would likely have gone that direction.

Ubiquiti’s Amplifi: My first install

Automating my home Wireless Revisited Part 1: Design

Since moving into our new home, I have been on a quest for new gadgets, and new ideas that would help make our home more manageable, and more enjoyable.  Most of this has centered around controlling as much as possible remotely, generally from my iPhone.  In earlier posts I wrote about various home wireless routers I had tried, and about my journey to settling on the Ubiquity wireless technology.  Since I have been having many conversations recently about my configuration and the growth of my home network I thought it would be helpful to walk through my current configuration and explain some of the choices.
 

Router

 
Moving away from the all in one wireless router became imperative when I wanted to begin separating some of my traffic on my home network.  It started with a a guest network on my Apple Airport Express devices, but as devices began to multiply in my house, I wanted more control over traffic and more functionality to block users access by time and various other criteria.  This required a fully functional firewall with more advanced router functionality.
 
After significant research, the Ubiquiti EdgeRouter X met all my requirements at a very reasonable price.  The biggest benefit here was having a full firewall, actual VLAN support, and the ability to create the DHCP scopes needed to support my new design.  For the price, I determined if this didn’t work out it would be a fun lab experiment.  After some review I decided against the Ubiquity Unifi Security Appliance, due to the lack of advanced functionality, the integration with the Unifi controller was tempting but not enough.
 

Switch

 
Initially when I was planning for a wired design, the physical switch was a pretty critical component.  I was looking at several 24 port switches, more advanced functionality, and assuming that all VLANs would terminate at that central switch, with small 5 or 8 port access layers witches where needed for aggregating cabling as needed.  As the wireless design unfolded, the switch became less relevant, and only required for the few devices without wireless, most of which sit next to the router.
 
After careful consideration and design review, the TP-LINK Easy Smart Switch 8 portTP-LINK Easy Smart Switch 8 port was again the best choice for what I was designing.  I gave some consideration to the Ubiquity Unifi 24 port managed switch, but the additional functionality was not compelling enough for he significant price increase, especially since I only needed a few ports.
 

Controller

 
When I initially installed the software controller, I tried to use a first generation Raspberry pi B+.  The process was cumbersome, and required me to build from source.  In the end, it proved to be far too slow for my likings, and seemed a bit unstable.
 
To get things up and running, I installed the Unifi management software on my Mac Mini media server.  This worked pretty well, but I prefer to isolate things as much as possible, and it required me to change the port on one of my media management apps.
 
As an experiment, I wanted to test out the new Raspberry Pi 3 as a controller, realizing that might make this something I could package for people who wanted better wireless.  As it turned out, this model supported the native debian linux package for the controller, and is now my permanent controller.
 

Wireless Access Point

 

I have owned dozens of wireless routers.  Unfortunately, I could never find a single solution that covered my whole house.  When we moved into the new house, I decided I needed a system that would give me full coverage everywhere, even if it required multiple access points.  After significant research, I finally settled on Ubiquity Unifi UAP-AC-PRO.  I had to put watchers out on several sites, and finally was able to get ahold of one.  I assumed I would need 2-3 to cover us, but the one has served incredibly well.  The POE was also a huge benefit, I was able to simply do a quick cat6 run through my attic and drop it in the upstairs hall.  It actually looks like a smoke detector if you don’t know what you are looking for, so it blends right in.

 

This post is just designed to give you the architecture, and some of the decision points.  Soon I will go over some of the more interesting configurations in detail and explain why I made some design choices.  The takeaway here is that for under $300 I ended up with enterprise wireless at my home.  I have put all my streaming media on wifi with no issues, the only things plugged in are controllers and other devices without wifi.  I am very happy with the system, and plan to do a similar configuration for friends and family who want a better wifi experience without the insane costs of Cisco Meraki or similar.

 

Automating my home Wireless Revisited Part 1: Design

Enterprise Home Wireless and Home Automation

Solid Home wireless networks have become expected.  We don’t think about them, we don’t want to invest much in them, but we want them to always work.  For something so critical, it is logical for many users to implement a more Enterprise wireless system at home to support home automation and the myriad of new technologies that demand more and better wireless performance.

Why is home wireless so important?

     My first home wireless access point was a Linksys  running 802.11b, much slower than what we run today with significantly less range.  I had one laptop which connected to it, which was great for our small apartment.  We now live in a much larger house and use smart televisions and devices for streaming Netflix, Sling tv, and Plex to provide our entertainment.  There are 2-3 devices between phones, tablets, and laptops, per person, not including our home media server, wireless thermostat, wireless cameras, and others.  There are over 30 devices running off our home network at any given time, often with multiple HD video streams running simultaneously.

     While we may be the extreme, it is also indicative of the direction that many home users are going.  Recently a friend of my wife asked my sons and I to help setup her new smart tv. When I arrived, she had two wireless routers, one from Comcast, and a Linksys router, and too my surprise, both were broadcasting different SSID’s.  I worked on the routers for a while, but eventually gave up and just left everything as it was because I wasn’t sure what the implications of changing it would be.

What should you look for in home wireless?

     With many internet providers integrating wireless in their routers, often the installer from the provider will setup the basic wireless service.  This is great for getting the user going, but this introduces some significant issues.  First the wireless routers are often used equipment, whatever the technician happens to have in their van.  For many of these providers they also use these wireless routers to provide a public hotspot for their other customers.  This is done using a separate network, but is still a potential security risk.  Finally the features on these routers are fairly limited.  Updating the firmware often requires the providers tech support, not my idea of a good time.

     For all home wireless users, purchasing a wireless router is at least a very good idea.  Types of routers depend widely on the size of the home, and the types of devices used.  At a minimum, at this point, 802.11ac routers should be selected with features like a guest network being a standard feature.  Most modern wireless routers come with several gigabit ports on the back as well which is nice for devices which may not have a wireless connection.  Finally range is critical to look at.  With the rise of “Mesh” routers, basically the concept that you can drop in several routers throughout the house and they connect to each other wirelessly to extend the wireless network, it is important to remember that this is going to significantly slow the performance of your wireless network.

How do you set it up?

From a performance perspective it is important to consider how fast your home internet connection is, and what you are using the home network for.  Having fast wireless is critical for me, due to the number of devices connecting out to the internet, but also because we stream movies and tv shows we own from a central media server, or the internet.  A majority of the content is internal to the home network so we have an incredibly robust wireless system.  I also have chosen to purchase my cable modem to ensure that we have a good quality connection outside.  We have a fairly advanced network with different wireless for the children, a separate guest network, and even a separate network for devices such as cameras and the thermostat.  This ensures that if there is a problem with a device I have less control over, I can isolate the problem.

     Unless you are someone who fully understands how to configure some of the more advanced settings, it is often wise to find someone to help.  While it is tempting to go it alone, this is a risky proposition when you consider how much of our life is online.  Offering a friend working in IT, or your local IT guy some cash, or other bribes is always a good way to get some help, or looking at services offered by Geek Squad at Best Buy or other similar companies is often wise.  It is always good to remember you get what you pay for, and you wouldn’t do surgery on yourself.  It is also wise to seek advice from these type of people on what to purchase.  While $200 or more for a wireless access router may seem like a lot, it is important to remember that wireless internet is an essential part of our daily lives.

     As more devices connect to our networks, and we continue to expect more from these systems, better devices, with more complex configurations are required to keep up.  While most people can read the instructions and get the basic out of the box configuration to work, a more advanced and full feature set is likely available.  Getting assistance, and learning about how wireless can help simplify your life and provide more opportunities for home automation can be a critical for the home user just as much as the business user.

Enterprise Home Wireless and Home Automation

The changing landscape of high-tech startups, what it means for the future of technology.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins points out, “When used right, technology becomes an accelerator of momentum, not a creator of it” Technology, he goes on to point out, is not the reason for the success of great companies, but rather a critical component of their strategy. Technology is a means to an end, but for those outside the tech world, it is simply one tool to be exploited.

There is no doubt that the landscape is changing for technology, especially technology startups. In 2015, and indeed for several years prior, we have seen insane valuations of companies that had yet to produce an actual product. To make matters worse, those that do produce a product, produce something which is very impressive, but mostly just a little better than the competition. Usually it is a new way of compressing data, a new de-duplication algorithm, or a way to do analytics on the data at rest. All very cool, and every one thinking they are going to be the next big thing. There is an old saying which goes something like build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, or something like that. The problem is that everyone is building a slightly better mousetrap with slightly different features when what we need is just a basic mousetrap. This is true of storage, hyper-converged, and every other technology startup in the past few years.

Generally speaking we can say that history repeats itself, especially in the high tech world. I was preparing to leave the military during the dot com bubble, just as it burst, I made the last minute decision to stay in and give myself more time to prepare. While this may not exactly be a bubble, we are trending toward a massive consolidation of these high tech startups. The reason is simple, we are overcomplicating everything. Businesses, much like consumers, don’t want complicated flashy technology, they want technology to accelerate what they are doing, they want to augment and improve their lives with technology. In the Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Douglas Adams makes the point,”We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.” The future of technology is not one off complex cool solutions, it is abstraction, simplicity, and integration. If your product doesn’t simplify business or consumers lives, it is likely to be short lived.

The changing landscape of high-tech startups, what it means for the future of technology.