According to the meteorologists (and just about every media outlet) we are in for a very wet Winter. Depending on where you live and work, this may just mean miserable traffic, or it might mean flooding, mudslides and worse. One thing we can always count on when it rains in Southern California is less reliable internet connectivity. On its best day SoCal is ill-prepared for any sort of weather other than the mild temperate climate we normally enjoy, and severe weather invariably impacts all of the major ISPs in the area. I can say without a doubt that while every single ISP labors unceasingly to improve the reliability and speed of their networks, but they all rely on physical infrastructure that is sometimes (oftentimes) outside of their direct control. Most of that is copper wire or optical fiber that is distributed through poles, buried cable lines, and subterranean tunnels, all of which are subject to the forces of nature. To top it all off, all of the internet traffic in the world passes through an absurdly small number of chokepoints, including one in Downtown LA that, last year, was taken out temporarily by a car crashing into the building lobby where it’s located. And it wasn’t even raining that day. Not convinced? Northern California experienced multiple widespread outages recently due to malicious parties physically cutting subterranean fiber lines that would seem to be too easy to access.
What this means for you:
Hopefully you have built a business sustainable enough to withstand an internet outage of an hour or two, but what if that outage were to last an entire day, or, even worse, multiple days? Most of my clients are savvy enough to know how to get work done from other locations, and many of them use cellular broadband on a regular basis, but what if your entire company had to figure out how to work from another location because the internet was down? Even worse, what if your building was flooded or rendered uninhabitable/unreachable because of the weather? While it would be impossible to provide a comprehensive guide on what to do in these types of situations, here is are a few questions that should help you start planning for that inevitable rainy day we will all face at some point:
- Who provides your internet service? Do you have their contact information handy some place other than your office?
- Who provides your phone service? Is it tied to your internet service? What happens to inbound calls when your phones are offline?
- Who hosts your email? Is it provided by a server in your office? What would happen if your customers/clients could not reach you via phone or email for any length of time?
- Do the primary operations of your business rely on the internet in some form or other? e.g. point of sale systems, call centers, web servers, etc. How much revenue might be lost if you were “offline” for a day? A week?
- Do you have a way of communicating with your co-workers or employees if the main office is “offline”? What about your vendors, clients and customers?
A sustainable and successful business must be able to operate in adverse conditions, and most importantly, not have the internet be a critical failure point. We are still a ways away from a highly reliable information superhighway, so make sure you have a rainy day plan ready.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Despite how dependent we all have become on it, the Internet still remains a mystery to most folks. There’s a good reason for it – it is complicated and for most, it’s not their job, nor their interest, to have a comprehensive grasp of how data gets from point A to point B. But just like other things we usually take for granted – water, electricity, our cars – when it stops working, we really notice and chafe at any delays to restore normal service. In the case of a water or car problem (most of us are smart enough to not mess with electricity or natural gas!), we’ll try to roll up our sleeves, pop the hood and grab a wrench, but calling a professional is probably the safest and most effective way to get things working again. This is also the case with internet service, but believe it or not, there are some things you can do to troubleshoot and possible restore service, as long as you understand the basics of how the internet is delivered and connected to your location.
Let me break it down for you. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it simple.
First off, you have to have an Internet Service Provider (ISP). It’s important to know who this is, what your account number is, and what the Customer Support number is for that service. You should have this info printed out and easy to find, because, guess what? When the internet is down, it might be hard to look up that info.
Your ISP will deliver internet through a number of different physical types of circuits. The most common are fiber, coax (commonly known as “cable”), and twisted-pair copper. This last one can take various forms, many of which you should be familiar – T1’s, DSL and Ethernet over Copper (EoC) – are all delivered via simple copper wire. This physical circuit will be “terminated” (ie. plugged into your location) in an Minimum Point of Entry (MPOE) or a Demarcation Point (DMARC) which, depending on the type of building, can be a basement, phone closet, a box on the side of your house, or a cable drilled right through the wall into your living room. If you own the property in question, it’s important to know where your internet comes into your property.
That circuit, whatever its type, will actually plug/screw into some sort of device, most commonly referred to as a modem or a data services unit (DSU), but there are several other types and names for this piece of equipment. Essentially, they all have one function: connect the ISP to your property.
From the modem or DSU, your circuit is connected to a router. The router is where the magic happens, and is the most important device on your network, from both an internet as well as a local network perspective. Sometimes, depending on the service, the modem/DSU and router are combined into a single device. This form is often found in small offices and residential installs of coax service (from someone like Time Warner, Comcast, Spectrum, etc.), and is often just called a cable modem or simply a router.
Here’s where things get tricky: depending on your service agreement with your ISP, the router may be managed by them, or it may be your own equipment, and both situations can be found in any size business environment. It’s a safe bet that if your company is big enough to have full-time IT staff, your company probably owns and manages its own router. Either way, make sure you know who’s responsible for the router before touching it.
The internet gets conveyed to your devices through two different means: via wire (usually through an Ethernet cable) or via wi-fi. Wired ethernet is delivered via devices called switches (often incorrectly called hubs, which are no longer used), and Wi-fi through access points. In both cases, that internet is delivered to a network interface on your device, which can take the form of an ethernet jack or an antennae. To make things even more confusing, it’s very common to find routers that are also switches and access points, but which may also connect to additional switches and access points, depending on how large your local network is and how your office is designed.
Made it this far and ready to try your hand at network troubleshooting?
When troubleshooting the most basic problem of internet service, ie. it’s not working, there are a few simple questions to ask that can point you to the possible source of the problem:
- Is everyone at that location unable to access the internet? If no, it might be a problem with one of the main devices like the modem/DSU or the router. Check those devices first. If they appear to be operating normally (no flashing yellow or red lights), then call your ISP to make sure service is not down in your area or location. They may or may not instruct you to cycle power on these devices, so make sure you call from a phone that can reach where those devices are connected.
- Wi-fi service is not working properly? If your wi-fi is delivered by separate access point, cycling power may resolve this issue. In larger office environments, this may not be possible as these devices are typically mounted out of reach, and may be physically protected from tampering. In those cases, contact the responsible support person. If your router handles the wi-fi, you may need to reboot the router to restore normal service. In most cases, cycling power on these devices will not harm them nor make them lose their settings, but make sure you know who’s responsible for managing the device before rebooting it.
- Single or small-cluster of wired devices down? Look for a problem with either the ethernet cable (snugly plugged in on both ends? no exposed wires or busted tabs on the cable ends?) or a local switch. Many small offices use switches to distribute network in cubicle and multi-occupant spaces. Look for green/amber lights on both switches and network interfaces. No lights usually means the network signal isn’t getting through for some reason.
- Lastly, did you reboot the device in question? Frequently, if the problem is isolated to a single machine (computer, printer, mobile device), rebooting may solve the problem, especially if it’s wi-fi related.
Tried all of the above and still stumped? Call in a professional!
Several technology manufacturers, including Broadcom (whose chips you probably have in several devices around your home and office) are planning to release in 2015 chips for a new networking protocol called G.Fast which can push bandwidth transmissions on twisted-pair copper lines to near fiber-optic speeds of one gigabit per second. Throughout the US and many other developed nations with significant communication infrastructures, internet speeds aren’t limited by technology but by physical wiring. The most common form of internet service in the US, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), is delivered via the same wires that provide basic telephone service, that were, up until now, limited in how fast they could transmit data mainly by what amounts to a simple (but hard to overcome) physics problem: copper wires are susceptible to radio-frequency interference from adjacent sources, including each of the strands in a single pair that delivers the signal.
What this means for you:
Don’t rush out to cancel your existing internet service. G.Fast isn’t expected to make an appearance until 2016 at the earliest, and providers will still have to grapple with an issue that they have faced many times in the past: the full, gigabit transmission speed of G.Fast is still limited by distance, with the last leg not exceeding about 160 meters before the speed drops off drastically. This means that ISPs will still need to install equipment proximate to residences and offices, something that is costly and time-consuming to execute, and very few ISPs (maybe with the exception of Google and their Fiber initiative) have demonstrated a willingness to pursue until they are forced to (see ATT’s GigaPower counter to Google Fiber). However, the fact that this technology can utilize existing wiring that is available in just about every building in the US means that getting to gigabit internet speeds might not require companies tearing up streets and hanging from telephone poles to string the more expensive cables needed for fiber-based solutions. And you can bet that companies like ATT and Verizon will seize on any opportunity to compete with Google, especially when they can spend less money to field a competitive solution.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Late last year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced that they were opening up registration for more top level domains on the internet. Starting next week, the familiar “.com”, “.edu” and the other 20 well-known TLD’s maybe joined by as many as 1900 new domains over the course of the next few years. Among the first that will be released for use will be “.book”, “.bike” and “.wed” as well as specific corporate domains for large companies like “.apple”, “.google” and “.ford”.
What this means for you:
If you already work for a company with a well-established and/or well-known domain, your marketing folks (and the lawyers) may explore the new TLD’s primarily to protect the company’s brand from competitors or domain squatters. They should know that as part of the introduction of more TLD’s, ICANN has also introduced a new trademark clearinghouse where infringement challenges can be handled before the legal knives come out. If you are in the process of establishing your online identity and have been under the impression that all the “good” domain names have been taken (for TLD’s like “.com” they have, for the most part), the new TLD’s may present an opportunity for certain businesses and creative marketers.
However some industry analysts are worried that the proliferation of TLD’s may just lead to more confusion and uncertainty on the internet for the majority of users. For example, once “.google” goes live, when I want to search for something, do I go to “google.com” or “search.google” or “www.google” or “google.google”. My guess, at least with Google, all of those will work, but imagine trying to tell your grandmother the difference between them (there might be!) or why there is more than one URL, especially after you finally got her to start using Google in the first place. It’s too soon to say, but given how confusing the internet is now, one thing it’s not likely to simplify will be internet security.
Image courtesy of jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
We’ve already seen way too much of some politicians and celebrities on the internet, but it seems human foolishness knows no bounds where the internet is concerned: sharp eyes have spotted a trend of people posting things like driver’s licenses, debit cards and other items with sensitive personal information in plain view on the internet through services like Twitter and Instagram. The reasons for posting these images aren’t immediately clear – and frankly, there isn’t a single logical explanation that doesn’t make these folks out as complete fools.
What this means for you:
In case you aren’t clear as to why this is a bad, bad thing – posting your sensitive personal information on the internet is tantamount to building a gigantic neon sign over your head that says, “Steal my identity, please!” To all the people who are doing this – STOP. Put down your smartphone (ironic, eh?) and step away from the internet. Go stand in the corner and put on that funny, pointed cap. Congratulations, you’ve just earned the Dunce of the Year!
Parents – if you have a teenager with their own smartphone and they’ve just earned their driver’s license or their own credit card, make sure they aren’t taking a picture of that shiny new card and posting it on the internet to brag to their peers. It might be a good time for a little security chat – and will be a lot more comfortable than that other chat you’ve been putting off for awhile now, right?