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.


A typical week living with a PC?

February 16, 2007

My problems are your entertainment, so here goes. and no that’s not me on the left!

It all started on Sunday I guess. My dog pulled me down my garden steps which resulted in me banging my head on a step. This was followed in the afternoon when, tidying my garden, I managed to poke my eye with pine needles. The rest of the week was spent with one bright red eye!

On Monday. I made the mistake of reading the postings here all about computer problems.

On Tuesday. Resisting putting pen to Outlook, I decided that it might be a good idea to clear the inside of my computer of 12 months of fluff and dust.

Boy, there was a lot! I have no idea why, but when I rebooted my now rather old PC, inevitably it wouldn’t! Lots of garbage on the screen and a complete failure to boot. After fiddling around for a couple of hours, I discovered that my graphics card had blown up, replacing it made the computer boot properly. Phew.

On Wednesday. The machine has been running like a dog for a number of months now so it was time to upgrade. My son has a number of machines floating around the house, so he built one up for me with twice the clock speed and delivered it to my desk.

On Thursday. Spent the day on that unenviable task of reinstalling all those applications and devices connected to the USB port. Trying find to find all my registration codes – well you know the problem. By 6 o’clock I was quite happy with most things working. Then, bloody hell! I got up from my desk and caught the cable going to my USB hub with my foot. I didn’t yank in the direction that would just pull the plug out – oh no – I yanked in opposite direction and it destroyed the complete USB socket and the screen went blank. My son was out at the time, so I tryed to repair the motherboard with no success. It looked like I had shorted the +5V line and computer #2 would not boot. When my son came home, I had to say to him “I’ve some bad news…”

On Friday. Fortunately, we could get a new motherboard from PCWorld which is 1/2 a mile from my house. My son rebuilt the machine and found there was no further damage. I completed installing all the apps including Norton Antivirus. Now, I am very well aware that Norton has a well earned reputation for slowing machines down but I have never had any problems myself (Maybe I had with my old machine but I didn’t notice). On Friday afternoon my new machine virtually stopped working because it had slowed down slow much – by a factor of at least 100. I was tearing my hair out by now.

Another significant problem I had was that Firefox 2 just would not load. I clicked the icon several times but it just would not load. Looking I also had this problem – though not quite so severe – on my old machine.

After several hours of frustration I decided to disable Norton Antivirus and wow! Suddenly Firefox loaded instantly and all my delays vanished and I was left with an appropriately fast machine. Thank heavens! I have no idea why this should be so – interrupt lock-ups perhaps? Anyway, Norton was uninstalled and replaced with AVG and everything was hunky dori. I’ve been using Norton for more than ten years so this is quite a step for me.

My son came into my office and I explained that I had got to the bottom of my problem. While doing so I was fiddling with my eye glasses in my hands. Crack! my nice new frameless glasses cracked in half…

On Saturday everything seemed to be working but I refused to get in my car for a few days!

Whatever you do, please DON’T clean your computer.

Postscript: Well maybe my story is not over. My PC would not boot this morning with the message ‘NTLDR not found’. This, of course, is the main Windows boot loader program stored at c:/. We copied the file over from the Windows CD and I ran full virus and spyware scans but no problems were found and so ends week two!

Postscript #2: Would you believe it? On March 15th the new motherboard gave up the ghost and stopped working. An exchange of the motherboard did the trick and I’m up and running again. How long will this saga go on!


What does an average US SVP of sales earn these days?

February 15, 2007

The following data came from an email from Taber Consulting. It’s a real pity that when you go to their web site you are forced to look and listen to lift music for a 28 second flash presentation before you can get to the home page and there is no button to bypass it! I thought those days were long gone! It’s a pity ‘cos there is some excellent information on their web site.

I would not recommend using these US corporate salary levels in your average start-up business plan…

The data below are for public and private companies with a direct sales model and revenues below $250 M/yr. We’re showing the averages, but specifics vary widely for individual firms. Thanks to PhoneWorks for these data.

The average SVP or EVP of Sales has an base of $187K/yr, and a commission structure of $170K/yr. To meet these average on-target earnings, they must achieve an overall quota of $31M/yr, and manage a staff of 14 (~10 reps).

The average VP of Sales pulls in about 10% less in most of the numbers, yet carries about the same quota and has to work with a price point that’s lower. Seems as if the extra $$ for an SVP is due to the complexity of the sale (length of sales cycle/high price point) and the skills/seniority of the leader.

These numbers reflect a gradual downward trend over the last few years. Quotas have moderated and price points have trended lower, so commissions have decreased as well. Similar trends have occurred in individual rep pay.

As you’d expect, Inside Sales compensation is significantly lower:

  • Sales development – lead cultivation and appointment setting — has an average total package of about $130K for the manager and $80K for the rep.
  • Telesales reps – who actually close deals – average $165K for the manager and $110 K for reps.
  • Inside Sales Senior Mgt average $206K/yr and have to manage a quota of $63 M and a team of 22. The quota numbers are higher because of the short sales cycle and higher transaction volume.

The rise and maturity of MPLS

February 14, 2007

In Networks Part 2: The phenomenon of Ipsilon, it was mentioned that one of the key strengths of IP routing was its resilience. If a particular node broke, then packets would find an alternative route. However, this strength also created a weakness in that individual packets in a stream could arrive at their destination following different paths through the network thus creating additional delay or latency while the packets were reassembled in the correct order.

This is what happens in connectionless IP networks such as the Internet. In practice, this creates unpredictable performance in congested networks as any one who uses the Internet will experience each and every day. MPLS was the white knight that came along to save the world from this fate.

When the future of ATM and IP seemed to be coming clear back in 1997 I wrote: The time was never better for the introduction of MPLS.

  • IP is all dominant – ATM relegated to transmission.
  • Multiple media integration will take place at IP layer NOT at the ATM layer – video, data, image, text and voice.
  • There are no NATIVE ATM services beyond ‘cheap bandwidth’ cell-relay services.
  • IP is the ‘killer application’ for ATM (if there is one!)
  • Customers are not asking for ATM, they are asking for IP
  • The advent of ‘label switching’ has changed the nature of WAN ATM network architecture for ever.
  • The time was never better for the introduction of MPLS .

So what is MPLS?

The advent of Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) defined a mechanism for packet forwarding in routers and enabled the rollout of connection-oriented networks. Connection-oriented data networks emulated the way that paths were set up in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) networks. This involves setting up a path prior to sending packets across the network.

Using labels that were added to packet headers, MPLS uses IP addresses to identify end points and intermediate routers on the path from source to destination. This makes MPLS networks IP-compatible and easily integrated with traditional IP networks. However, packets are routed along pre-configured Label Switched Paths (LSPs) using signalling protocol such as LDP, RSVP-TE, or CR-LDP thus making their flow both predictable and manageable.

Showing an MPLS tunnel (LSP) passing transparently through Router ‘B’

When a label-headed packet arrives at a router, the router uses this label to identify the LSP. It then looks up the LSP in its own forwarding table to determine the link over which to forward the packet, and the label to use on this next hop. A different label is used for each hop, and it is chosen by the router or switch performing the forwarding operation. This allows the use of very fast and simple forwarding engines, as the router only has to select the label to minimize processing. In a normal router, it has to intercept and process every packet that transits. Ingress routers (called Label Edge Routers) at the edge of the MPLS network use the packet’s destination address to determine which LSP to use. Inside the network, the MPLS routers use only the LSP labels to forward the packet to the egress router.

If you would like a more in-depth overview of MPLS, there is no better place to visit than Cisco’s web site and read their MPLS Overview

The arrival of the concept of cut through routing enabled a new generation of engineers and companies to focus on these issues and they brought a new over-arching vision for this innovative technology – convergence of services over IP euphemistically called ‘Everything over IP). Once most vendors had jumped on the IP bandwagon, following the demise of ATM, convergence became all the rage back in the late 1990s as the next step in IP world domination. It has never looked back.

The belief in convergence

Convergence of what you may ask. In the 90s, there was a complete separation of voice and data networks in the public service world. Voice services were carried over the highly standardised, understood tightly managed PSTN, while Wide Area Data Networks (WANs) were migrating towards high efficient Frame relay services (as described in 1992). The IP convergence vision forecast that all services would be converged onto a single IP-based network. Of course, there was a tremendous backlash to this idea from the traditional telecommunications engineering community who generally thought that this was all nonsense and could never work (they might still be right!). As with most things in life, both sides of the debate were correct in many areas but everyone was wrong about the timescales that it would take to achieve convergence. It’s only now (2007) that we are seeing the convergence vision start to pan out in incumbent carrier consumer services with the possible ‘leader’ turning out to be our very own British Telecom with their 21C initiative (or here).

The advent of cut-through routing pushed Cisco into launching Tag Switching which morphed into Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) when taken up the IETF Internet standardisation body which addressed a number of key issues that needed to resolved before convergence of certain services could take place over a pure IP network. The principle one of these was Class of Service (CoS).

One of the big strengths of ATM was that it enabled service and network designers to separate traffic into different classes of services that would be treated differently if the ATM network ever became congested. The highest class of service was reserved for real time services (isochronous services) such as voice and video that would take priority over less important store-and-forward services such as email. The modern equivalent to this is Voice over IP (VoIP) services taking precedence over Internet traffic.

CoS is replicated in MPLS by, not surprisingly, the Class of Service (CoS) feature. This enables network designers to provide differentiated types of service across an MPLS network by classifying packets at the edge of the network using Committed access rate (CAR). Packets are classified at the edge of the network before labels are assigned. CAR then uses the type of service (TOS) bits in the IP header to separate traffic that have been tagged with different TOS bits onto different Label Switched Paths.

In addition TOS, there is another feature that carriers can deploy in addition to basic MPLS to ensure QoS in times of congestion – Differentiated services or DiffServ.

On normal router, when more packets are sent through a port than it is able to handle, the queue will fill up and excess packets will be discarded. This will cause jitter, delays and malfunctions in your application software.

If the carrier uses the same categorisation of services as defined in ATM, best effort, assured and real-time services, multiple queues can be set up in ports to ensure that these three classes of service are treated differently in times of congestion. There are two basic queuing/scheduling mechanisms Weighted Round Robin (WRR) and Strict Priority. Strict Priority queue is used for real-time traffic, and WRR for assured and best efforts, what’s left is best efforts.

The service uses of MPLS

At the end of the day, the use of technology for technologies sake is never justified so just what was it that drove the deployment of MPLS?

(a) Voice over IP (VoIP): The first real deployment of MPLS was not in customer-facing services, but was buried in the core of carrier’s networks to carry voice traffic. Before the advent of IP networks, 100% of voice traffic was carried over traditional PSTN networks and was subject to a strong technical and commercial regime defined by the ITU. Carriers needed to agree to use appropriate public technical and interconnect standards driven by the big incumbent monopolies. They also needed to agree to commercial settlement for other carrier’s traffic transiting their networks and to pay other carriers to carry their voice traffic. Settlement was both a cost and a revenue and in the ‘good ‘ol pre-IP days’ these were usually in balance to everyone’s benefit.

However, if international voice traffic could be buried or hidden in IP connections using VoIP, it was possible to significantly reduce transit costs AND avoid settlement out-payments at the same time! I guess the practical strategy in the growing market of the time was to siphon-off traffic growth onto IP networks to cap regulated out-payments to other carriers. “Not me Guv”, was the mantra!

This financial gain led to the wide-scale deployment of VoIP in the late 1990s but was pretty much hidden from the public arena.

Since 2002, VoIP has slowly moved from hidden deployment out to end-user customer services. Initially this took place as enterprise services but a little later in the form of low-cost VoIP international call operators. There are literally hundreds of VoIP service providers today (you can see my list on TechnologySpectra).

(b) MPLS-based IP-VPNs: Another service that drove MPLS deployment was the idea that frame relay based WANs could be replaced by IP based services. These were called IP Virtual Private Networks (IP-VPNs). When this was first mooted, data services engineers familiar with frame relay services dismissed the concept out of hand but eventually came round under pressure.

The first IP VPNs came to market using the public Internet as the transport network and used IP-SEC as the encryption mechanism to keep the content private and are called Internet-VPNs. Unfortunately, these had one big problem – unpredictable performance (down to full stop situations) due to congestion on the Internet. Things are better these days especially if your Internet-based IP-VPN is national, rather than international in nature and they certainly provide low-cost solutions if performance is not of concern.

However, to get adequate and dependable performance carriers needed to provide MPLS-based IP-VPNs on their own networks using MPLS to to deliver appropriate performance using MPLS’ Quality of Service (QoS) capabilities described above. The mechanisms were defined in a seminal IETF standard, RFC-2547 published in 1999.

One of the big issues that is still to be faced in 2006 is that if an IP-VPN straddles multiple carrier networks, as it has to do in the real world with global WANs, there are major technical and commercial issues in making QoS seamless across those networks. More on this in a future post.

The deployment of MPLS-based IP-VPNS has been pretty much universal over the last few years and is pushing frame relay WANs to one side (see graph at bottom of the page). However, things are not all rosy as IP-VPNS, like all IP networks, require significantly skilled (and expensive) CCIE engineers to manage them. They are very complex to set up and manage and could not in any sense be considered to follow a Keep it simple, stupid! (KISS) philosophy as expostulated by the Ethernet community [Confusingly, most carriers use MPLS to carry Ethernet services on their networks].

Note: An interesting Ethernet initiative is PBB-TE (Provider Backbone Bridging Traffic Engineering is an emerging IEEE standard that incorporates a set of enhancements to Ethernet known as Provider Backbone Transport (PBT) that allows the use of Ethernet for a carrier class public transport network. Again, more in a later post.

(c) MPLS traffic engineering: What is traffic engineering? My network book defines it thus: The ability to guarantee performance in a network for a certain amount of capacity for a certain amount of time. Also known as “traffic management,” it implies the ability to analyze the current traffic load and dynamically make necessary adjustments to accommodate the different types of traffic or changing conditions.”

Delivering appropriate Quality of Service to conform to customers’ Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for both voice and data is key for a carrier. Traffic engineering as been at the heart of the PSTN for decades but it was a new activity for IP networks – and still is in practice.

In the past, most carriers delivered backbone Internet services used ATM as the bearer for IP traffic by routing it over specific inter-city paths to better manage the uncontrollable nature of IP. MPLS was seen to be the principle way forward in enabling carriers to remove ATM completely from their networks and still be able to traffic engineer their networks. This lead to the IETF standardising this need in a standard called MPLS-TE.

Interestingly, MPLS-TE has not been taken up on the scale originally expected by the carrier community for various reasons. More on this in a future post.

(d) Cost reduction: We have talked about services and engineering so far, but by far the biggest reason that MPLS has been taken up is the promise of reduced network management OPEX costs – the core of many upgrade business plans.

A non-converged legacy network has multiple layers. The lowest being the Wave Division Multiplexing (WDM) fibre layer , above this is the Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH or SONET) layer, above this ATM and finally IP. Each of these layers runs independent of each other and each required a separate software management regime and separate fault management systems. This is extremely costly to operate and can quite easily lead to knock-on effects if a network element breaks.

Convergence to a single network based on IP predicted a wonderful Return on Investment (RoI) by collapsing those multiple layers down to IP using MPLS on a fibre network. Even after ten years, these benefits have yet still to be proven and the world’s carriers are looking at BT’s 21C initiative to see whether this proves to be the case. Personally, I think that there is no cheaper network to manage for voice services than a fully written off traditional TDM-based PSTN network which can still be be a part of a converged network – I hope this does not make me appear to be a luddite…

Pseudowires

Building on the theme of everything over IP, pseudowires is a Cisco standard authored by Luca Martini several years ago and is now on the IETF agenda.

Pseudowires enables the transport of ‘legacy’ time division multiplexed (TDM) services over an MPLS enabled core network. It does this by emulating the characteristics of those legacy services, such as frame relay or ATM.

Pseudowires has been particularly useful for carriers providing DSL services for Internet access as this rather old technology is based on ATM.

Round up

Having read back over what I have written, I think I have raised more questions than I have answered and have certainly triggered several future posts that will talk about some of the issues raised.

So what about the title of this post? Yes, MPLS is now an old protocol. Back in 2000 / 2001 very few carriers had actually deployed it and it is even more recent that MPLS-based IP-VPNs have become common. Technologies really do take decades to penetrate our everyday lives.

Looking at the graph below, services such as ATM and frame relay, that could be described as legacy protocols, are now in terminal decline. However, IP over MPLS and Ethernet are growing rapidly. The point to notice though, is that it could be considered that MPLS growth has matured while Ethernet is still experiencing high growth.

Traffic growth by protocol (Source: Infonetics in Feb 07 Capacity Magazine)

MPLS has provided solutions to the QoS enigma but, as with any IP based service, it has proved to be complex and expensive to manage and the jury is still out about whether its deployment (as with convergence) really saves cost. In this age of ever-accelerating technology and service roll-outs, I think it is fair to say that MPLS itself has is now in a state of maturity. Indeed, maybe there are other solutions that will replace it going forward. But, as I’ve said several times in this particular post, that is the subject for a future post as well.

Part 4: MPLS and the limitations of the Internet

Postscript: The new network dogma: Has the wheel turned full circle?


Are entrepreneurs born or made?

February 13, 2007

In the Sunday Times on Sunday 11th February, there was a interesting article entitled Are entrepreneurs born or made? Which talks about a theory put forward by Adrian Atkinson of Human Factors that entrepreneurs are born not made – no matter how much effort the individual puts in. To quote, “This theory that anyone can become an entrepreneur is absolute nonsense”.

Contentious stuff indeed. This may be applicable for lifestyle start-ups where you are going it alone, but I think it’s a real stretch to apply this to a start-up where real team effort is required – and looked for from VCs.

Yes, of course a focused, driven, visionary individual is always required to drive things forward, but to use a simplistic evaluation about whether you are prepared to mortgage your house and work seven days a week to evaluate whether you will make an entrepreneur is just not realistic – contributing characteristics yes.

Unless, you start a business before you get married, have children and sign up for a damn big mortgage just to get a roof over your head (or decide not bother with all these trivialities of life). Or you start later in life when the children have grown up (you can’t say “and left home” these days can you?).

Mind you, if you score low and believe what you are being told, then you are definitely not of an entrepreneurial bent. A real entrepreneur will shrug this off and get back to the job of making their venture successful no matter what – but this would mean you do have a good entrepreneurial attitude! You will only find out whether you are an entrepreneur or not BY DOING.

Anyway, if you want to find out whether you will be successful as an entrepreneur you can spend 5 minutes completing the following questionnaire or go to the web site and spending some money – www.humanfactors.co.uk/pep

How to see if you have what it takes

For each of the following five groups of statements choose the one that best describes what would be most Important to you when starting your business.

Group 1
A Working with other like-minded individuals
B Making a big effort to get the company structure right
C Willing to work seven days a week
D Realising that technical excellence is the key to success

Group 2

E Getting some qualifications before starting your business
F Only starting the business with all the finance in place
G Keeping your existing job until your business is established
H Seeing work as relaxation

Group 3

I Making sure you have a social life as well
J Be willing to sell your house and car to start your business
K Taking your time to make all the important decisions
L Plan your exit strategy from the beginning

Group 4

M Not selling more than the company can deliver
N Making sure the product is perfect before getting sales
O Be willing to fire people who perform badly
P Developing business plans to make strategic decisions

Group 5

Q Always involving colleagues in decisions
R Only aiming for the highest quality
S Be willing to sacrifice family life to build the business
T Realising that all that matters in business is making money

SCORING
Score 4 points each if you chose C, H, J, 0, S
Score 3 points each if you chose A, E, L, P, T
Score 2 points each if you chose B, F, K, M, Q
Score 1 point each if you chose D, G, I, N, R

To see your what your score means:

Read the rest of this entry »


What makes Cheapflights tick?

February 12, 2007

0Coincidentally a few days after I posted about the new investment body Howzat Media, I happened to hear David Soskin, CEO of Cheapflights, talking at the recent AlwaysOn media conference in New York via a webcast.

According to the Cheapflights About page information:

Cheapflights is a travel price comparison website. Well, if we were in a bragging mood, we’d tell you we are the country’s leading travel price comparison website (and give you the stats to back it up). But, we’re a nice bunch of people and we don’t want to brag, we just want to help you find the best and cheapest flight we possibly can.

So what does David Soskin believe has made Cheapflights and its advertising policies successful? Here is the essence of his talk:

  • “We have been an innovator in the sector since 1996”
  • “Our market share has been booming in the US and doubled our share in a year”
  • “Our model is quite similar to TRAVELZOO except we focus on flights, whereas TRAVELZOO covers everything.”
  • “Search for the travel industry is very important because of its inherent long tail [lots of individuals who want to book flights I assume cg] – there is more to the travel industry than just Expedia.”
  • “Google is very much the market leader for providing leads to airlines, but there is a growing segment called vertical search. Do people come to vertical search? Yes, because for many people it provides a more satisfying user experience.”
  • “If you want to find a great deal from Boston to Los Angeles and you want to find a great price, Google doesn’t help you. You need to come to a site such as Cheapflights where we have selected the best flight operators and, using our own algorithms, sorted out the very best prices for a whole range of different dates.”
  • “The advertisers on vertical sites are gaining much exposure to would-be customers who are so much closer to a purchasing decision than those who come from a Google search. That’s the motivation for advertisers to appear on vertical sites.”
  • “Why are metrics and analysis important? Because there is a very long tail in travel. We display 200,000 city pairs, 800,000 flight offers daily and we have over 80 travel advertisers on our site.”
  • “We are the innovator in the sector, we invented the model in 1996 and introduced pay-to-click in the UK in 2000. We opened bidding for premium positions in 2002 and in 2003 launched the first multi-booking solution. In 2006 we debuted the Cheapflights partner portal where analytics are so very important. We have developed the first place on the Internet where travel operators could analyse the clicks they were getting on any particular route. They can see in real time where they are getting their clicks and adjust their advertising spend and prices they send us accordingly. So it’s a very powerful tool for the huge US travel business to market on-line.”

David finished with a touch of philosophy:

“Finally, we at Cheapflights follow the philosophy of possibly the richest man in the world, the founder of Ikea, Ingvar Kamprad. He says ‘Only while sleeping one makes no mistakes, the fear of making mistakes is the root of bureaucracy and the enemy of evolution.’ We constantly trial new things, some work some don’t, but we keep trying.”

 


Are you suffering from ‘the knack’ as well?

February 11, 2007

Well, I guess anyone looking at this blog suffers from this sad affliction. When did it start happening for you?