Hammerhead Systems: Enabling PBB-TE – MPLS seamless services

November 16, 2007

I haven’t quite decided whether there is a true religious war between the now ubiquitous MPLS and the more recent PBB-TE (Provider Backbone Bridging Traffic Engineering) Ethernet technologies. It certainly seems that way sometimes! However, everything has its time and place and that applies to network technologies as well.

On one hand, MPLS is now the de rigueur technology for use in the core of the world’s IP-based ‘converged’ networks. MPLS enables IP to be tamed to a degree by providing deterministic (i.e. predictable) routing and QoS. Deterministic routing forces traffic over a predetermined path so that all packets on that path will experience the same delay. This is an absolute necessity for real-time traffic such as Voice-over-IP, video conferencing and IP-TV services. MPLS also enables traffic to be categorised so that real-time services take preference over non-critical traffic such as email at busy times on the network. I’ve covered much of this in previous posts such as The rise and maturity of MPLS.

If your network strategy guys come from the ‘purist’ MPLS camp then it is clear that they will see MPLS being deployed both in the core and metro access network. However, MPLS is often now seen as an expensive and complex technology to maintain in real environments and this has prevented carriers from rolling out MPLS to the edge of their networks, often known as local metro-networks. A carrier usually has only one core network but often has many local access or metro networks which directly connect to their customers’ buildings and private LANs. If MPLS were deployed throughout this infrastructure costs could skyrocket.

A consequence of this is that the industry has been looking for a lower cost alternative as the technology of preference for use in these access networks. As the transport of preference for enterprises is Ethernet it comes as no surprise that there has been tremendous interest in using Ethernet in carriers’ access networks as it could prove to be a lower cost solution than MPLS. It has been conjectured that the deployment of PBB-TE rather than MPLS could save in excess 40% of costs. This will be the subject of a future post.

This vision has driven a tremendous amount of standards activity that has resulted in the PBB-TE standard whereby inappropriate features have been stripped out of Ethernet to create a transport technology that can be used in carrier’s access networks. I’ve previously written about these initiatives in my posts – Ethernet goes carrier grade with PBT / PBB-TE? and PBB-TE / PBT or will it be T-MPLS?.

If the above scenario is to pan out in practice, then carriers must be able to to seamlessly and transparently deploy and manage services across both technologies and this has been a real if not impossible challenge to date. This has much to do with the immaturity of PBB-TE technology and lack of compatibility with MPLS. For example, MPLS uses pseudowire tunnels for the transport of services across a core network, while PBB-TE uses E-LINE which has been defined by the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF).

Earlier this week I listened to a most interesting webinar from Hammerhead Systems a USA company who have been focusing on this issue and I would like to thank them for allowing me to use some of their graphics in this post.

It was interesting to hear a clearly articulated vision for a future network strategy based on a technology agnostic view. The term ‘technology agnostic’ in this case means a future based on hybrid networks based on a mechanism whereby MPLS and PBB-TE are able to inter-work. Of course, I’m sure many would see this as a first step to an MPLS-free future, however that could be seen as a bit extreme and I’m sure Hammerhead would never articulate this view!

One of the weaknesses of PBB-TE is the lack of a workable control plane so Hammerhead have partnered with Soapstone in this announcement. Interestingly, Soapstone is a division of a company that I used know quite well, Avici.

Avici came to fame with a terabit router in the late 1990s but with the down turn in the market they decided to focus on providing software to support converged Next Generation Networks. They say they “Provide an abstraction layer that decouples service from the network“. The availability of this portable abstraction layer is the one of the key needs to enable seamless inter-operation between MPLS and and PBB-TE.

In the webinar, Dr. Ray Mota, Chief Strategist and President of Consulting Synergy Research Group, presented a view of PBB-TE past and PBB-TE future. As it’s nearing Christmas this reminded me of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, but I digress…

PBB-TE (past) was profiled as being designed as a replacement for traditional point-to-point SONET/SDH trunks supporting enterprise Ethernet services. However, there are some key pieces missing and this was what the webinar was all about.

PBB-TE (future) is about a “Generalized Services Infrastructure” that is independent of MPLS or PBB-TE transport layers. The joint announcement encompassed the following components of this Generalized Services Infrastructure which claimed to be the “first seamless support across PBB-TE metro networks and MPLS cores” running on Hammerhead’s HSX 6000 PBB-TE Service Gateway™.

  • Multipoint-to-Multipoint (MP2MP): Hammerhead’s PBB-TE E-LAN
  • Point-to-Multipoint (P2MP): Hammerhead’s PBB-TE E-tree
  • Multicast and Multipoint applications: PBB-TE E-Tree for IPTV, IP-VPN, Multicast, and Enterprise Managed Services
  • Seamless solutions across MPLS/VPLS and PBB-TE: Hammerhead’s Service gateway for inter-working of MP2MP and P2MP PBB-TE solutions with MPLS/VPLS
  • Control Plane Provisioning: Support for MP2MP and P2MP PBB-TE solutions through the Soapstone partnership.
  • All of these services supported with MultiClass QoS

An example of a service – business multicast – that could be deployed across a mixed infrastructure is shown below.

Hammerhead make extensive use of the IETF’s Virtual Switch Instance (VSI) as a building block to enable a capability to support both pseudowire trunks across MPLS and PBB-TE trunks based on MEF E-LAN. The diagram below shows how a seamless service can be created:

One of the key services that is driving converged NGN networks is IP-TV and the MEF E-Tree specification provides the multicast capability these types of service require. Again, Hammerhead support this stanfdard on PBB-TE and MPLS.

In practice, Hammerhead’s multicast solutions for PBB-TE networks use Soapstone Networks’ Provider Network Controller (PNC) control plane which decouples the control and data planes enabling Hammerhead’s E-LAN and E-Tree services to run without the development of new protocols. Also, Hammerhead’s VPLS and MPLS E-Tree solutions use existing MPLS control protocols.

Roundup

I don’t normally make my technology posts so focused on a particular vendor’s product set but I wanted to make an exception in this case. I certainly would not be able to confirm that what Hammerhead have announced is truly unique, but it does seem to be a first from my limited visibility. I have also been interested in what Soapstone are doing for some time as well. Perhaps this partnership is a marriage in heaven?

We can all do without technology wars. The telecommunications industries, whether they be fixed or mobile, really do need to focus on providing the innovative services that their customers can use. Moreover, they do need realise that moving packets from one location to another is a commodity service that needs to be offered with exceptional reliability, high customer service but also at low cost. To me, commoditisation is a good thing and not to be something to be frightened of and avoid by trying to jump into so-called value added services to avoid the margin crush. The commoditisation of the computer market following the personal computer steamroller can hardly be seen as a bad thing, but it does mean that infrastructure costs have to come down in step with average service selling prices.

MPLS is a high cost marriage partner and carriers should be looking at alternative technologies to see if they can help reduce costs. Unfortunately it is often the case that equipment vendors are not technology agnostic (e.g. PBT could be catastrophic, says Juniper CEO) and that is very much the case with MPLS. Of course, once a technology really starts to take off – as demonstrated by IP – then every vendor jumps on the bandwagon!

Providing a solution that enables carriers to deploy the most appropriate and cost effective technologies in access and core networks AND to be able to provision and manage services seamlessly, seems to me to be a ‘no brainer’ idea which should receive much interest. It is certainly good to be able to identify one company that can help carriers achieve this goal and it will certainly help PBB-TE gain further credibility.

I certainly predict that the majority of incumbent and alternative carriers that need to connect with customer premises will, if they are not today, evaluate the use PBB-TE to ascertain whether the cost reduction promises are real. Hammerhead’s and Soapstone’s solution could provide a key element in that evaluation. If they are truly unique with this announcement, then they won’t be for long as every other vendor will try and catch up!


iotum’s Talk-Now is now available!

April 4, 2007

In a previous post The magic of ‘presence’, I talked about the concept of presence in relation to telecommunications services and looked at different examples of how it had been implemented in various products.

One of the most interesting companies mentioned was iotum, a Canadian company. iotum had developed what they called a relevance engine which enabled the provision of ability to talk and willingness to talk information into a telecom service by attaching it to appropriate equipment such as a Private Branch Xchanges (PBX) or a call centre Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) managers.

One of the biggest challenges for any company wanting to translate presence concepts into practical services is how to make it useable rather than just being just a fancy concept that is used to describe a of a number peripheral and often unusable features of a service. Alec Saunders, iotum’s founder, has been articulating his ideas about this in his blog Voice 2.0: A Manifesto for the Future. Like all companies that have their genesis in the IT and applications world, Alec believes that “Voice 2.0 is a user-centric view of the world… “it’s all about me” — my applications, my identity, my availability.

And rather controversially, if you come from the network or the mobile industry: “Voice 2.0 is all about developers too — the companies that exploit the platform assets of identity, presence, and call control. It’s not about the network anymore.” Oh by the way, just to declare my partisanship, I certainly go along with this view and often find that the stove-pipe and closed attitudes sometimes seen in mobile operators is one the biggest hindrances to the growth of data related applications on mobile phones.

There is always a significant technical and commercial challenge to OEMing platform-based services to service providers and large mobile operators so the launch of a stand-alone service that is under complete control of iotum is not a bad way to go. Any business should have to full control of their own destiny and the choice of the relatively open Blackberry platform gives iotum a user base they can clearly focus on to develop their ideas.

iotum launched the beta version of Talk-Now in January and provides a set of features that are aimed at helping Blackberry users to make better use of the device that the world has become addicted to using in the last few years. Let’s talk turkey, what does the Talk-Now service do?

According to web site, as seen in the picture on the left, it provides a simple-in-concept bolt-on service for Blackberry phone users to see and share their availability status to other users.

At the in-use end of the service, the Talk-Now service interacts with a Blackberry user’s address book by adding colour coding to contact names to show the individual’s availability. On initial release only three colours were used, white, red and green.

Red and and green clearly show when a contact is either Not-Available or Available, I’ll talk about white in a minute. Yellow was added later, based on user feedback, to indicate an Interruptible status.

The idea behind Talk-Now is that helps users reduce the amount of time they waste in non-productive calls and leaving voicemails. You may wonder how this availability guidance is provided by users. A contact with a white background provides the first indication of how this is achieved.

Contacts with a white background are not Talk-Now users so their availability information is not available (!) so one of the key features of the service is an Invite People process to get them to use Talk-Now and see your availability information.

If you wish a non-Talk-Now contact to see your availability, you can select their name from the contact list and send them an “I want to talk with you” email. This email will provide a link to an Availability Page as shown below. This email talks about the benefits of using the service (I assume) and asks you to use the service. This is a secure page that is only available to that contact and for a short time only.

Once a contact accepts the invite and signs up to the service, you will be able to see their availability – assuming that they set up the service.

So, how do you indicate your availability? This is set up with a small menu as shown on the left. Using this you can set up status information.

Busy: set your free/busy status manually from your BlackBerry device

In a meeting: iotum Talk-Now synchronizes with your BlackBerry calendar to know if you are in a meeting.

At night: define which hours you consider to be night time.

Blocked group: you can add contacts to the “blocked” group.

You can also set up VIPs (Very Important Persons) who are individuals who receive priority treatment. This category needs to be used with care. Granting VIP status to a group overrides the unavailability settings you have made. You can also define Workdays. Some groups might be VIPs during work hours, while other groups might get VIP status outside of work. This is designed to help you better manage your personal and business communications.

There is also a feature whereby you can be alerted when a contact becomes available by a message being posted on your Blackberry as shown on the right.

 

Many of the above setting can be set up via a web page, for example:

Setting your working week

Setting contact groups

However, it should be remembered that like Plaxo and LinkedIn, this web based functionally does require you to upload – ‘synchronise’ – your Blackberry contact list to the iotum server and many Blackberry users might object to this. It should be noted as well that the calendar is accessed as well to determine when you are in meetings and deemed busy.

If you want to hear more, then take a look at the video that was posted after a visit with Alec Saunders and the team by Blackberry Cool last month:

Talk-Now looks to be an interesting and well thought out service. Following traditional Web 2.0 principles, the service is provided for free today with the hope that iotum will be able to charge for additional features at a future date.

I wish them luck in their endeavours and will be watching intensely to see how they progress in coming months.


Nexagent, an enigmatic company?

March 12, 2007

In a recent post, MPLS and the limitations of the Internet, I wrote about the challenge of expecting predictable performance for real-time services such as client / server applications, Voice over IP (VoIP) or video services over the public Internet.I also wrote about the challenges of obtaining predictable performance for these same applications on a Wide area Network (WAN) using IP-VPNs when the WAN straddles multiple carriers – as they most always do. This is brought about about by the fact that the majority of carriers to not currently inter-connect their MPLS networks to enable seamless end-to-end multi-carrier Class-of-Service based performance.

As mentioned in the above post, there are several companies that focus on providing this capability through a mixture of technologies, monitoring and a willingness to act as a prime contractor if they are a service provider. However today, the majority of carriers are only able to provide Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for IP traffic and customer sites that are on their own network. This forces enterprises of all sizes to either manage their own multi-carrier WANs or outsource the task to a carrier or systems integrator that is willing to offer a single umbrella SLA and back this off with separate SLAs to each component provider carrier.

Operational Support Software (OSS) Vendors challenges

An Operations Support System is the software that handles workflows, management, inventory details, capacity planning and repair functions for service providers. Typically, an OSS uses an underlying Network Management System to actually communicate with network devices. There are literally hundreds of OSS vendors providing software to carriers today, but it is interesting to note that the vast majority of these only provide software to help carriers manage their network inside the cloud i.e. to help them manage their own network. In practice, each carrier uses a mixture of bought in and 3rd party OSS to manage their network so each carrier has, in effect, a proprietary network and service management regime that makes it virtually impossible to inter-connect their own IP data services with those of other carriers.

As you would expect in the carrier world, there a number of industry standard organisations that are working on this issue but this is such a major challenge I would doubt that OSS environments could be standardised sufficiently to enable simple inter-connect of IP OSSs anywhere in the near future – if ever. Some of these bodies are:

  • The IETF, who work at the network level such as MPLS, IP-VPNs etc;
  • The Telecom Management Forum, who have been working in the OSS space for many years;
  • The MPLS Frame Relay Forum who “focus on advancing the deployment of multi-vendor, multi-service packet-based networks, associated applications, and interworking solutions
  • And one of the newest, IPSphere whose mission “is to deliver an enhanced commercial framework – or business layer – for IP services that preserves the fundamental ubiquity of the Internet’s technical framework and is also capable of supporting a full range of business relationships so that participants have true flexibility in how they add value to upstream service outcomes.”
  • The IT Information Library which is a “framework of best practice approaches intended to facilitate the delivery of high quality information technology (IT) services. ITIL outlines an extensive set of management procedures that are intended to support businesses in achieving both quality and value, in a financial sense, in IT operations. These procedures are supplier independent and have been developed to provide guidance across the breadth of IT infrastructure, development, and operations.”

As can be imagined, working in this challenging inter- carrier, service or OSS space provides both a major opportunity and a major challenge. One company that has chosen to do just this is Nexagent. Nexagent was formed in 2000 by Charlie Muirhead – also founder of Orchestream, Chris Gare – ex Cable and Wireless and Dave Page – ex Cisco.

In my travels, I often get asked “what is it that Nexagent actually does?” so I would like to have a go at answering this question after setting the scene in a previous post – MPLS and the limitations of the Internet .

The traditional way of delivering WAN-based enterprise services or solutions based on managing multiple service providers (carriers) has a considerable number of challenges associated with it. This could be a company WAN formed by integrating IP-VPNs or simple E1 / T1 TDM bandwidth services bought in from multiple service providers around the world.

The most common approach is a proprietary solution, which is usually of an ad hoc nature built up piecemeal over a number of years from earlier company acquisitions. The strategic idea would have been to integrate and harmonise these disparate networks but there was usually never enough money to start, let alone complete, the project.

Many of these challenges can be seen listed in the panel on the right taken from Nexagent’s brochure. Anyone that has been involved in managing an enterprise’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure will be very well aware of these issues!

Overview of Nexagent’s software

Deploying an end to end service or application running on a WAN, or solution as it is often termed, requires a combination of:

  1. workflow management: A workflow describes the order of a set of tasks performed by various individuals or systems to complete a given procedure within an organization., and
  2. supply chain management: A supply chain represents the flow of materials, information, and finances as they move in a process – or workflow – from one organisation or activity to the next.

In the situation where every carrier or service provider has adopted entirely different OSS combinations, workflow practices and supply chain processes, it is no wonder that every multi-carrier WAN represents a complex, proprietary and bespoke solution!

Nexagent has developed a unique abstraction or Meta Layer technology and methodology that manages and monitors the performance of an end-to-end WAN IP-VPN service or solution without the need for a carrier to swap-out their existing OSS infrastructure. Nexagent’s system runs in parallel with, and integrates with, multiple carriers’ existing OSS infrastructure and enables a prime-contractor to manage multi-carrier solutions in a coherent rather than an ad hoc manner.

Let’s go through what Nexagent offers following a standard process flow for deploying multi-supplier services or solutions using Nexagent’s adopted ICT Infrastructure Management (ICTIM) model.

Service or solution modelling: In the ICTIM reference model, this is the Design stage. The is a crucial step and is focused on capturing all the enterprise service requirements and design as early as possible in the process as possible and maintaining that knowledge for the complete service lifecycle. Nexagent has developed a CAD-like modelling capability with front-end capture based on a simple-to-use Excel spreadsheet as every carrier uses a different method of capturing their WAN designs. The model is created up front and acts as a reference benchmark if the design is changed at any future time. The tool provides price query capabilities for use with bought-in carrier services together with automated design rule verification.

Implementation engine: In the ICTIM reference model, this is the Deploy stage. The software automatically populates the design created at the design stage with the required service provider interconnect configurations, generates service work orders for each service provider involved with the design and provisions the network interconnect to create a physical working network. The software is based on a unified information flow to network service providers. Importantly, it schedules the individual components of the end-to-end solution to meet the enterprise roll-out and change management needs.

Experience manager: In the ICTIM reference model, this is the Operate stage. The Nexagent software compares real-life end-to-end solution performance to the expected performance level as specified in the service or solution design. Any deviation from agreed component supplier SLAs will generate alerts into existing OSS environments.

The monitoring is characterised by active in-band measurement for each site and each CoS link by application group and is closed-loop in nature by comparing actual performance to expected performance stored in the service reference model. It can detect and isolate problems and includes optimisation and conformance procedures.

Physical Network interconnect: Lastly, Nexagent developed the service interconnect template with network equipment vendors such as Cisco Systems and physically enables the interconnection of IP-VPNs that have chosen different incompatible ways of defining their CoS-based services.

Who could use Nexagent’s technology?

Nexagent provides three examples of the application of their software – ‘use cases’ – on their web site:

Hybrid Virtual Network Operator is a service provider which has some existing network assets in some geography but lacks network reach and operational efficiency to win business from enterprises requiring out of territory service and customised solutions. Such a carrier could use Nexagent to extend their reach, standardise their off-net interface to save costs and ensure that services work as designed.

Data Centre Virtualisation: Data centre services are critical components of effective enterprise application solutions. A recent trend in data centre services is to share computing resources across multiple customers. Similarly, using multiple physical data centres enables more resilient and better performing services with improved load balancing . Using Nexagent simplifies the task of swapping carriers delivering services to customers and better monitor overall service performance.

Third Party Service Delivery: One of the main obstacles for carriers to growing market share and expanding into adjacent markets is the time and money to develop and implement new services. While many service providers want a broader portfolio of services, there is growing evidence that enterprises want to use multiple companies for services as a way of maintaining supply chain negotiation leverage – what Gartner calls enterprise multi-sourcing.

Round up

This all may sound rather complicated, but the industry pain that Nexagent helps solve is quite straight forward to appreciate when you consider the complexity of multi-carrier solutions and Nexagent and have taken a pretty unique approach to solving that pain.

Although there is not too much information in the public domain about Nexagent’s commercial activities, there is a most informative presentation – MPLS Interconnection and Multi-Sourcing for the Secure Enterprise by Leo McCloskey, who was Senior Director, Network and Partner Strategy at EDS when he presented it (Leo is now Nexagent’s VP of Marketing). An element of one of the slides is shown below. You can also see a presentation by Charlie Muirhead from Nexagent – Case Study: Solving the Interconnect Challenge.

These, and other presentations from the conference can be found from the 2006 MPLScon conference proceedings at Webtorials archive site. You will need to register with Webtorials before you can access these papers.

If you are still unsure about what Nexagent actually does or how they could help your business – go visit them in Reading!

Note: I should declare a personal interest in Nexagent as a co-founder, though I am no longer involved with day to day activities.

Addendum:  March 2008, EDS hoovers up Reading networking firm


Would u like to collaborate with YuuGuu?

March 7, 2007

When I was at an event organised by FirstCapital event before Christmas, I met with two guys who told me about a new service they were launching – YuuGuu. I’m sure I probably said something along the lines of “What was that again?” By way of explanation, according to their web site, Yuuguu derives from the Japanese word for fusion.

YuuGuu was founded by Anish Kapoor and Philip Hemsted “after becoming frustrated by working together remotely and not being able to see and share each other’s computer screens in real time.” “Recognising the changing world of work, Yuuguu came about as a solution to help people work together remotely, through any firewall, across different platforms, with as many colleagues as needed, just as if they were sat right next to each other.”

Put simply, YuuGuu is a web-based collaboration service that helps teams work together. I first used such services in the mid 1990s when Intel’s ProShare came to market and have been using them occasionally on and off ever since. Collaboration services are now widely used as we all know (I have listed here some of the companies offering web based collaboration services). There is a wide variety of tools that come under the heading – some are used more than others. For example, Instant messaging (IM) has become part of all of our lives, although there is still resistance from many companies in allowing their employees to use them due to security considerations. Skype is all about voice collaboration and makes an excellent audio bridge for conferences – if there is a sufficiently good Internet link to allow it work correctly. Video conferencing is still an expensive, unreliable and a black art if my experiences over the last decade are anything to go by. Personally, I would rather have a good audio conference than a four foot video screen where you cannot see the faces of the participants clearly because of the quality provided by a 2mbit/s link.

The other interesting component of many web collaboration services, is application sharing. Application sharing is the ability to remotely access and interact with an application on a remote machine. This was seen in Intel’s Proshare and formed a component of Microsoft’s NetMeeting for example. My most recent use of such software was using the well known webex service last year to show presentations and demonstrate some network software to potential customers around the world. This generally went well (though webex is certainly not the easiest service to use) but is was being used in what I would call a non-interactive one-way manner i.e. Internet delays were not that important unlike if you were editing text remotely. My experience of doing just that has been this year when I attempted to use my blog host’s on-line HTML editor. This was a complete disaster as I lost much text when the web page failed to update correctly several times. However, this was designed for remote use as you were editing on your own machine before uploading. If you attempt to edit documents on a remote machine that are not designed for remote access such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint , high latency on key presses can be disconcerting and disrupt thought flow. This type of application sharing demands good Internet performance with zero packet loss.

My first interaction with the software was with it availability flag described thus by YuuGuu as “Presence – instantly tell when your workmates or friends are around”. In practice, this is a simple indicator that you can set in the client to say whether you are available or not. I will be writing quite a long post on presence’ in the future so I won’t dwell on the subject too much here. YuuGuu will be adding more capabilities to this simple availability feature in the future. They do use XMPP so at least they will be able to interconnect or federate a buddy list with other IM services.

Philip Hemsted’s cluttered Desktop

YuuGuu is very straightforward to install and start and my first call was with Philip Hemsted and with a click of a button and with his permission I was able to see his desktop. At the moment you can only share a complete desktop and cannot specify just a single application so there could be security concerns if you are giving access to somebody who is not is the same company as yourself.

Philip went though a couple of PowerPoint slides and then I asked to access his copy of Word to do some remote editing. This went fine but there was around a two second delay when typing so I couldn’t recommend that you start writing the second War and Peace but this is typical of most remote access programmes. The better you are at touch typing, the easier you will find it to use!

One really nice feature is its group capability. You can call in a third party to the collaboration session by selecting them from the buddy list and they will be able to see the shared desk top as well as become part of the YuuGuu IM session. I’m sure that in most collaboration sessions Skype would be used in parallel so a VoIP capability would be a beneficial future addition.

There are lots of plans to upgrade the current service with additional capabilities that would be required for corporate use such as history storage for their audit needs and SLAs. These would most likely form the basis of a future paid-for premium service.

What makes the product interesting to me is the simplicity of its use, its ability to work on an Apple in addition to Windows and its simple group capability. Go try – you have nothing to lose! Interestingly, like Crisp Thinking, they are based in the the north of England – Manchester.


Joost’s beta – first impressions

February 26, 2007

I have received a beta account for Joost at long last. Joost is the new initiative from Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis of Skype fame.

I can’t describe the service any better that than the way they do so here it is:

“Joost™ is a new way of watching TV on the internet, which uses new and established technologies to provide the best of both the internet and TV worlds. We’re in the process of making it as TV-like as we can, with programmes, channels and adverts. You can also see some things that we think will enhance the TV experience: searching for programmes and channels, for example, as well as social features like chat. There are many more new features to come!”

Here are a few screens from the service itself as running on my XP machine.

Click on the picture for full size images.

This is the Preferences menu and seems to be mainly concerned with time related issues with the user interface. What is of most interest to me – the connections options – I could not find at all! It may have been just me!

Clicking on the My Channels icon on the left-hand side of the screen brings up my favourite channels menu which you can scroll up and down with your mouse. I noticed some issues with stuttering of the sound when I moved my mouse around. This is a new machine so I’m not sure what causes this. Feels like a typical Windows problem with streaming services.

I think this could be caused by the focus being on another application when you are running Joost as a background window.

When you want to add a channel, you just click the option and up pops the selection menu that overlays the video. As this is created using the downloaded Joost client, all these option selections present themselves promptly with zero hesitation. Being not network based is a surprise but is the right way to go I think.

It’s possible to bring up a featured channel catalog to see what’s new. Interestingly, much of the content I’ve brought up so far is from the USA and certainly the spelling is US – as can be seen by the spelling of the word ‘catalogue’. It’s still a beta I guess, but I would need more relevant content to attract me to use the service extensively.

This is the Indy channel which is shown in Window mode. A click on a button takes it to full screen. Again, I haven’t examined all the content, but the quality of the video on a full size screen is inadequate – it certainly seems to be less than 2mbit/s and not particularly good to look at close up as you can see in the picture.

In fact, it seems fairly typical of most streamed video that you come across on the net.

My first impressions so far are:

  • the look and feel of the channel selection menus are really great and a pleasure to use.
  • I was disappointed as I expected to be able to get a better quality video stream from Joost than other streaming services but this doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t know whether all the channels are encoded at the same data rate and use the same compression algorithm, but if so, it will limit the time I spend with the service.
  • Joost did lose its connection with the server several times while I was fiddling around – I don’t know where the beta server is located. As I mentioned in my recent post – MPLS and the limitations of the Internet, if I sat down to watch a film and this happened I would not find it acceptable.
  • In the preferences menu, I could not find anything to do with setting up the Internet connection at all. As a consumer service this may be OK, but I find it disconcerting not to be able to manage the basics of the connection speed myself. Maybe I want to restrict the bandwidth Joost uses if I had a limited bandwidth connection. The corollary of this is that Joost always takes as much bandwidth from your connect as it needs. If so that’s a worry and a worry to businesses as well.

I’ll try and do some more tests done over the next few days to get a better feel. By the way, as I type this post up, if I type fast enough, the Joost application stalls until I stop.

Addendum #1:

Using Windows Task Manager, Joost seems to be delivering its service to me at 1mbit/s which is about what I would have guessed from the quality. As I have 8mbit/s it would have been nice to take delivery at a higher rate so that it would be possible to look at National Geographic at full screen.

Oh well, back to the TV!

Addendum #2: A recent Silicon.com post articulated the challenge that could face the Internet with the advent of IPTV quite well:

Ferguson also suggested new, bandwidth-intensive services such as IPTV have the potential to cause even slower broadband speeds. “A provider only needs around 1.5 per cent of users to make use of, say, the BT Vision product at the same time to use up all the capacity,” he said.

He added: “The UK does not yet have the infrastructure to support millions watching EastEnders via broadband at the same time,” because of the high cost of retaining spare network capacity for times when online traffic is high.

So true…


3D heaven – Google’s SketchUp

February 23, 2007

After going on about the the pernicious nature of free voice services – Are voice (profits) history?, I’m about to sing the praises for some free software and as this free software comes from the Google stable, I guess this is acceptable! Of course, you can upgrade to the professional version…

SketchUp is an excellent 3D modelling tool that allows you to create 3D images of any complexity with relative simplicity and ease. I say with “relative simplicity” because its takes some to time to learn how to use it as it is SO different to any other program. On one hand, it is very intuitive to use, but on the other it can be very frustrating while you are learning a completely new way to use your mouse and its associated key clicks.

I’m modelling a house extension at the moment and the drawing on my left took me just a few hours to complete.

SketchUp was developed by start-up company @Last Software which was formed in 1999 and was acquired by Google in March 2006. Looking on the Internet, it seems the feature that attracted the purchase was a plug-in to Google Earth that allowed a user to place their 3D architectural creations on the Google earth maps – ideal for town planners!

Watch this video for a quick overview of SketchUp.

SketchUp is stuffed full of features and there is lots of help and tutorial material to get you going and it really is quite fun to use. There literally hundreds of of different materials to select when you fill a surface and you can download lots of pre-crafted objects to help you along the way.

It fully understands perspective and when you move objects, they get bigger as they get nearer to you – try doing this in PowerPoint! You can even even use PhotoMatch to import a photo and match the perspective of your drawing to that of the photo so that you can superimpose it on the photo in a realistic way.

I could go on for ages but you should download it and try it for yourself – you will hours of fun and have another useful tool to support your creative zeal.


File sharing with ‘Tubes’

February 19, 2007

Tubes is a very interesting new application that was launched a few weeks ago and would seem to fill an interesting hole in the plethora of services available on the Internet.

If you share files between computers or collaborate with colleagues and friends, then Tubes could be for you. It will work on a one-to-one basis or with multiple communities. It will automatically replicate selected files of content across selected devices or between colleagues.

You simply create a directory and drag and drop the files you wish to share into that directory and directories that are automatically synchronised on a permission based basis. Tubes works off-line as well so that content is available to you where ever you are working.

You enter your colleagues email address, send your colleagues an invitation and when they accept it, a network link will be set up on a peer to peer basis among the community. You are able to set up multiple networks, for different projects or groups of colleagues.

If you would like to learn more, go to their home page and you will find an entertaining video preview at the bottom of the page – How Tubes works.

It’s simple to use and definitely addresses a need. There are other shareware programs around that do a similar thing, but this seems far more well thought out and professional.


In Loco Parentis anti-grooming software

February 7, 2007

It seems kind of strange that after writing about Crisp Thinking, who have taken a network-based approach to detecting possible predatory paedophile discussions in chat rooms, I noticed xGATE who have come up with a hardware firewall solution aimed at solving the same problem. Now blow me down, along comes In Loco Parentis who produce anti-grooming PC software.

Interestingly, the software has been developed on behalf of a charity together with an ethical backer. Phoenix Survivors was established by Shy Keenan and Sara Payne. Phoenix Survivors is a completely independent web based voluntary support group set up for, and by, the victims of child sexual abuse and the families of children murdered by child molesters.

To quote the In Loco Parentis web site:

In Loco Parentis is an interactive system which allows you to:

  • See which websites your child has visited, allowing you to check the website’s suitability and block if necessary
  • Build a personalised library of words that you do not want your child to use or see online (watch words).
  • Monitor their online behaviour and set actions to be taken in the event that good conduct rules are broken
  • Be alerted by email to violations of the rules you have set up
  • Encourage respect between users with a bad language alert and lock out feature

In Locus Parentis provide a list of acronyms that could be used as part of a grooming discussion:

ASL Age, Sex, Location
BF/GF Boyfriend, Girlfriend
BRB Be Right Back
CD9 Code 9— means parents are around
GNOC Get Naked On Cam (webcam)
G2G Got To Go
IDK I Don’t Know
LMIRL Let’s Meet In Real Life
101 Laugh Out Loud
MorF Male or Female
MOS Mum Over Shoulder
NIFOC Naked In Front Of Computer
Noob When someone cannot use a computer very well
NMU Not Much, You?
P911 Parents Emergency
PAW Parents Are Watching
PIR Parents In Room
POS Parents Over Shoulder
PRON Porn
PRW Parents are Watching
S2R Send to Receive (this relates to pictures)
TDTM Talk Dirty To Me
W/E Whatever
Warez pirated software

The software runs on the PC itself, unlike Crisp and xGATE. It contains a ‘watchword’ dictionary’ – like xGATE – that allows parents to be alerted to inappropriate language or behaviour. These words are divided into the categories of swearing, bullying, sex and grooming for easy access and administration. Parents are provided with search and blocking options.

The watchword dictionary

I wonder whether just being alerted by email to violations of the rules is suffcient. As we know, email is not a real-time service and is not much use in multi-PC homes where parents may be working, otherwise engaged or sleeping while their children are in chat rooms. xGATE’s SMS alerting seems far more sophisticated and usable.

An article in the Sun newspaper proivides an overview.

Anyway, we now have a network, firewall and a software solution for detecting chat room grooming and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the market.


XGate: Protect your child’s on-line experience

February 5, 2007

Having only recently posted a short review of Crisp Thinking, who have taken a network-based approach to detecting possible predatory paedophile discussions in chatrooms, I was interesting in seeing another UK company launching a product in the this product sector – xGATE a division of Global Security One. Like Crisp, ,hey are also based in the north of England, Manchester to be precise.

The xGate is a full blown domestic firewall with additional features that enable parents to monitor, if they so wish, their child’s chat room discussions. To quote their web site:

XGate is the world’s first internet security device that is specifically designed to protect your child’s on-line experience. Even when you are not sat beside them!

  • Monitor your child’s chat room activities even when you are not there.
  • Receive a mobile phone SMS message or an email every time your child enters an unauthorised chat room.
  • Monitor your child’s chat room conversations from your mobile phone or by email.
  • Terminate your child’s chat room conversation immediately from your mobile phone or email if you detect a danger.
  • Prevent grooming by paedophiles – keep your children safe!

xGate take what could be considered to be a more conventional approach by integrating this capabilility into a small box that sits between household computers and the Internet.

It seems to be based on word detection and continuously monitors chatroom conversations looking for selected words that you have entered. I would assume xBox pre-populate the word list for you as this is key for successful detection. Also, can it detect only individual words or can you identify combinations of words which I would have thought to be quite important?

When it finds one, parents will immediately receive an SMS or email to alert to the issue and you can:

a) Terminate and block session
b) Shut down the computer
c) Continue monitoring the chat room conversation
d) De-activate the chat room senso

I do like the pro-active alerting mechanism as it will certainly gain your attention – unless your ‘phone is off!

Just after posting this I came across newly launched anti-grooming software from In Loco Parentis


Crisp Thinking: a child protection technology

January 29, 2007

When I heard the short presentation from Adam Hildreth of Crisp Thinking at Library House’s MediaTech 2.006 event held at the iMax theatre before Christmas, there was something that really intrigued me about what they were up to.

They were hosted at the event by David Rowe who runs Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team and hosts their Startup Zone.

In fact there were three things that I found interesting (a) The service they offer seemed, to me at least, very innovative that focused on an industry pain not being addressed in a significant way by other companies (b) Their approach to solving the problem from a network and technology perspective seemed remarkably different, and (c) their CEO is only 21! You don’t come across this combination too often in my experience.

What do they do?

Crisp have developed a child protection gateway (CPG) that has been designed to sit in an ISP network to protect children and teenagers from the specific threat of online-grooming and cyber-bullying. The CPG acts as the gateway for the traffic from protected households. Because all of the child protection components actually sit in the network layer, not on the client, the Crisp solution could offer unrivalled levels of protection. It is extremely hard for even a “well tuned” teenager to circumvent their network level controls.

The core of the CPG is Crisp’s Anti-Grooming Engine (AGE™). AGE™ takes a completely different approach to the traditional market approach for Parental Controls. It focuses on protecting children from external threats, rather than on moderating what children can and cannot do on the net. The net result provides an experience which is positive for both Parents and Children.

How do they do it?

Clearly, CPG type functionality could be installed in a domestic environment attached to DSL router to intercept traffiic but Crisp’s business model calls for them to work with ISP’s and embed their CPGs in the ISP’s network.

Although working with carriers / ISPs is always a challenge, it strikes me that Crisp’s technology would be well received as it provided a service that could prove to be very popular with parents. Crisp describe it thus:

“Offering controls within a network that an ISP can ‘switch on’ drives one of the key aspects of an ISP’s revenue model; value added services. With child protection being one of the few mass-market value added services this becomes particularly important in the current broadband ‘price war’.

Network-level protection also gives an ISP huge brand differentiation within the market; a consumer’s perception is immediately changed if their ISP is actually pro-actively protecting their family.”

The people:

Crisp is a young company and is actually Adam’s second start-up, even though he is only 21. Although he might be mightily embarrassed by this, when he was 18 he came number 4 in the RichList 2020 drawn up by the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Internet can be a horror sometimes!

Adam has put together a strong management team and has attracted Andrew Burke to be their Chairman. As Andrew was earlier BT’s CEO, BT Entertainment, I guess Adam has had many meetings with BT at Adastral Park!

Comment:

This certainly seems to be a company that has come with some cute technology and is taking an innovate, but challenging, approach to market. They are certainly addressing a major industry pain and if they are successful with thier trials I would expect a significant take up by the ISP community both small and large.

And, if you want to beat a path the Adam’s door, book your train seat because as they are based in Leeds in Northern England.

Postnote: Coincidentally, I saw that MySpace could be offering child monitoring software.

In January 2006, xBOX was launched – a firewall-based solution.
In February 2006, I came across newly launched anti-grooming software from In Loco Parentis


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