USB server

This is an idea that is long overdue – a USB device server:

IOGEAR today announced the release of its USB Net ShareStation, which enables network sharing of USB devices, including speakers and webcams.

The ShareStation (GUIP201) has a single USB 2.0 port, but can be connected to an AC powered four-port USB hub to support up to four devices. Devices supported include hard and flash drives, memory card readers, multifunction printers in addition to webcams and USB speakers.

This is a game-changer in terms of home network layout. Now, you can conceivably have a single network closet with your router, printer, external hard drives, etc and access them all freely iwth any laptop. There are various ways to do the same thing with other methods, such as printer sharing on a windows workgroup, a print server, a NAS, etc but this new device lets you do it all much mroe easily and with existing hardware.

Vista Me

I have completed my reinstall of Windows XP SP3 from scratch, on my new hard drive, for my Thinkpad. The thing that took the longest was getting my apps in order, a process which made me realize just how few essential apps I use, and how dependent I am upon them for my workflow. I think it’s even more clear after this process than before just how damaging a move to the Mac universe would be. And frankly, I had forgotten how great XP can be. Everything just works the way i want it, the way I know it.

With regard to Windows 7, the successor to Vista, Bill Gates promises the emphasis will be on performance this time around:

We’re hard at work, I would say, on the next version, which we call Windows 7. I’m very excited about the work being done there. The ability to be lower power, take less memory, be more efficient, and have lots more connections up to the mobile phone, so those scenarios connect up well to make it a great platform for the best gaming that can be done, to connect up to the thing being done out on the Internet, so that, for example, if you have two personal computers, that your files automatically are synchronized between them, and so you don’t have a lot of work to move that data back and forth.

In a nutshell, while Vista was all about security, Windows 7 will be about efficiency. It should be noted that a while back, Microsoft engineers demoed the core kernel of Windows 7, to run within 25 MB of disk space and 40 MB of RAM. Obviously that doesn’t include the GUI or the main OS features but its impressive to think that the essential core of Windows can be optimized that far down. And they aren’t done yet.

The truth is that for the modern computing environment, Windows XP trumps Vista by virtue of being leaner and more stable. I probably use my Asus EEE about 75% of the time, because it is so portable. The relatively slow speed (and lack of a big storage disk) are no hindrance because I sync my files to my main PC using FolderShare, and even the EEE has plenty of juice to run Office. However, it can’t run Vista, and given that the market for small PCs of the EEE variety is just starting to accelerate it’s no wonder that Microsoft is hinting about keeping XP around for a while longer. A lot of big businesses are also taking the long view, opting to skip Vista entirely and wait for W7.

We still don’t that much about Vista – Ars has a handy summary of just what we do know – but as far as my compute needs go, Vista is akin to Windows Me. I don’t need it, and I don’t want it, and I am going to wait for the “real” upgrade down the line.

Do velociraptors eat SSDs?

The WD Raptor has long ruled the roost in terms of raw hard drive performance. These are 10,000 RPM drives that are widely used in servers and high performance gaming rigs. They are expensive, and they maxed out at 150 GB if I recall correctly. However, WD is now releasing the next generation, the cleverly named Velociraptor series, and these things are probably the fastest hard drives on earth. But I think the name has a double meaning for WD, because the very existence of this drive is a clear sign that the days of rotating-platter hard drives are soon over. These raptors might be the pinnacle of their evolution, but their breed is going extinct.

That the Velociraptors are awesome drives is not in dispute. Part of their advantage is that these unabashedly desktop-PC-oriented drives actually use notebook-drive technology for better power consumption and speed:

The new VelociRaptor takes an untraditional approach for a desktop HDD with its 2.5″ drive design. The 2.5″ form factor allows the drive to be smaller, lighter, and more power efficient than its 3.5″ rivals.

But what good is a 2.5″ HDD in a desktop system which typically accommodates 3.5″ HDDs? Western Digital addressed that issue by affixing the VelociRaptor to an “IcePack” heatsink which allows the drive to fit into a standard 3.5″ drive bay.
When it comes to performance, Western Digital promises a 30% increase in performance though is SATA 3Gb/sec interface, 1.4 million MTBF, and Rotary Acceleration Feed Forward (RAFF) to improve performance in vibration-heavy environments.

Using a 2.5 inch drive surrounded by a stabilizing and cooling frame to round out the 3.5 inch enclosure is just brilliant. I think that the 3.5 inch format is itself a dinosaur of sorts – they do rule in raw capacity, but 2.5 inch drives are catching up, and their smaller platter size means they can spin faster and consume less energy.

The idea behind the velociraptors is to compete with solid-state hard drives (SSDs) on performance, while maintaining the cost advantage (at present) of traditional HD technology. And there’s no doubt that these monsters deliver. But as the Extremetech indepth review notes, it represents the pinnacle of hard drive technology. This is the peak of evolution, but SSDs are only just starting to evolve. The new generation of SSDs is on the horizon, and are already faster and cheaper than before, so the value and performance proposition of the VR is going to fall, inevitably.

Consider that SuperTalent is going to release a 120 GB SSD for only $699 shortly. The read speed is going to be rated at 120 MB/sec. As TGDaily notes,

When I bought my 32 GB SSD from Samsung in 2006 and put it inside Q30Plus notebook, SSD drive settled me back for almost $2K. But read speed of 120 MB/s was stuff dreams were made from. Performance of that drive, considered world’s best SSD – was in 35-50 MB/s read range (don’t ask about write). But even that was enough to beat default 1.8″ 4300 rpm drive. Now, imagine putting a 120 MB/s read, 40 MB/s write SSD in your notebook that is currently ran either with 5400rpm or even 7200 rpm HDD.

As the CEO of SuperTalent Joe James notes, SSDs are going to drop in price 50% every 9 months for the forseeable future (call this James’ Law). Couple that with continual improvement in performance as SSD makers gain more and more experience, and you can see the writing on the wall.

The traditional hard drive makers know it too, and products like the VR are only half their response. The other half is to try and buy time through delaying tactics – such as lawsuits:

Seagate Technology, the largest maker of computer hard drives, made a pre-emptive strike against an emerging competitor on Monday when it filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing STEC Inc. of patent infringement.

In the suit, Seagate contends that STEC’s solid-state drive products violate four Seagate patents covering how such drives interface with computers.

STEC, based in Santa Ana, Calif., makes solid-state drives for corporations and other large enterprises, a market that Seagate executives have said the company plans to enter this year.

STEC is a relatively minor player, so this lawsuit is Seagate’s way of testing the waters before going after the bigger fry like Micron and Samsung. It’s a desperation move, and it will fail, but it will give Seagate time to try to catch up.

In 5 years, every notebook will come with an SSD. Traditional hard drives are going to be relegated to cheap desktops, servers, and external drives for backups or NAS. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Velociraptor is dethroned from the performance peak.

1 TB laptop from Asus

woah. Inevitable, but awesome.

ASUS this week announced what it claims to be the world’s first laptop that has a 1-terabyte (1TB) laptop. Called the M70, users are able to order the laptop with dual 500GB SATA drives both running at 5400 RPMs. The kicker here is that the M70 does not require users to swap out an optical drive in order to have both drives installed.

Now the next step would be to support on-board RAID.

upgrading to 250 GB

WD Scorpio 250 GB PATA UltraATAMy T42 Thinkpad came with an 80GB Hitachi Travelstar hard drive. I’ve been living at 95% maxed out capacity for well over half its lifetime, surviving by migrating a lot of files to an external disk (mostly personal video and raw data from my MRI research). The Thinkpad is also starting to show its age in terms of cruft; my new Asus EEE is much easier to use in some ways because I’ve installed only a core set of software that I use often (limited by it’s tiny 4 GB SSD). A clean XP install – nlited to save me the hassle of installing service packs and software – is clearly necessary. So, an upgrade was clearly (over)due, despite my tightwad constraints. Winning a $30 Amazon voucher from Read/Write Web spurred me to action; I’ve just placed an order for a Western Digital 250 GB Scorpio drive.

Since my Thinkpad is older, it only has an Ultra-ATA interface instead of the newer SATA ones. Hence, my choices were limited and I had to choose between 250 GB for $130 or 160 GB for $90. WD is the only manufacturer which makes a laptop drive at 250 GB capacity with the Ultra-ATA interface, but I am satisfied that the drive is worth the cost (partially offset by the Amazon voucher to boot). The performance of the SATA version is reputed to be excellent, and I doubt the UATA lags it much (as it happens, SATA requires slightly more power consumption, so what I lose in marginal performance, I will regain in marginal battery life).

I am planning to stay with Windows XP for the time being, most likely Service Pack 3 (which is not an official release yet, but you can download it as a release candidate from Microsoft). I’m not sure how well my Thinkpad will run Vista, since it’s only got a Dothan chip instead of a Yonah (aka Core Duo). Steven’s travails are also a cautionary tale.

My plan is to also order a cheap external 2.5″ case to house the old drive, so I can more easily transfer the data off (and of course reserve it in case I ever need to boot back into my old setup). Now I need to think about something a bit more rigorous for backup; at present I have the external disk I mentioned, but it would be better to invest in a NAS like a Linkstation Pro. Sigh. A print server would also be nice… argh! It never ends.

WiFi and WiMax

At RWW, they ask whether WiFi will someday go away. I think that WiFi is in no danger of going away, but the ubiquitous web access is already on our doorstep and it’s called WiMax (everyone, chant with me: Xohm. Xohm. Xohm.) The future of web access will be 802.11n in the home and office (assuming it ever gets out of draft!) and WiMax everywhere else.

That said, Xohm is being designed explicitly for the embedded market, so it is possible that our toasters, TVs, and car keys will ultimately be WiMaxed instead of Wified. It really depends on the pricing model, and thats something we just cant predict how will play out yet. WiFi will probably always have an advantage in cost.

I tend to think of wifi and wimax as complementary technologies, however, in much the same way that commuter rail is complementary to a subway system. One is a heavy mover, with high capacity over long distances. The other is a short distance, low capacity transport. The analogy holds pretty well when you look at WiFi and WiMax as well.

UPDATE: hey, neat. I won the Comment of the Day at RWW for my comment. Thanks, Richard!

the most important droplet

With all the talk of the cloud, it’s worth noting that for every user, the single most important droplet therein will always be their own PC. Cloudware is still far from feature-rich as software running on your own machine, and of course all the important user data still resides on the home node (and is unlikely to significantly shift online in a world where external USB hard drives approach the terabyte-capacity and $100 price point equally fast). And it should be noted that the home node will also have the raw speed and performance edge over the cloud in any mainstream computing scenario. Thus, cloudware that leverages the power of the home node will be the killer apps of the future, not purely-cloud run apps.

To get there, however, we need to tap the power of the home node va the browser, which remains the nexus of where cloud computing and flex computing intersect. Here’s how we get there:

Javascript creator and Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich has revealed a new project called IronMonkey that will eventually make it possible for web developers to use IronPython and IronRuby alongside Javascript for interactive web scripting.

The IronMonkey project aims to add multilanguage functionality to Tamarin, a high-performance ECMAScript 4 virtual machine which is being developed in collaboration with Adobe and is intended for inclusion in future versions of Firefox. The IronMonkey project will leverage the source code of Microsoft’s open source .NET implementations of Python and Ruby, but will not require a .NET runtime. The goal is to map IronPython and IronRuby directly to Tamarin using bytecode translation.

A plugin for IE will also be developed. The upshot of this is that Python and Ruby programming will become available to web applications run through the browser, on the client side. Look at how much amazing functionality we already enjoy in our web browsers thanks to Web 2.0 technology, which is AJAX-driven (ie, javascript). Could anyone back in 1996 imagine Google Maps? Hard-core programming geeks who understand this stuff better than I do should check out Jim Hugunin’s blog at Microsoft about what they have in mind; it’s heady stuff. But fundamentally what we are looking at is a future where apps are served to you just like data is, and your web browser becomes the operating system in which they run. I can’t even speculate about what this liberation from the deskbound OS model will mean, but it’s not a minor change.

Still, this all is going to run on the home node, and not in the cloud. That’s the key. There’s only so much you can do, and will be able to do, on vaporware 🙂

9 inch EEE

The big news yesterday was the release of the 9-inch screen version of the Asus EEE PC, here shown alongside its little brother:

eee pc 9incheee pc 9inch

As you can see, the screen displaces the speakers that surrounded the screen on the original. I wonder how that affects sound quality – I’ve been surprised by how good the speakers are on the EEE thus far. Also, the new model is slightly larger, with a heavier hinge and deeper footprint. It also comes in your choice of the Linux or XP OS, though there still isn’t any word on US pricing.

The screen resolution is 1024×600, with the same pixel density as the 7-inch version. That is really appealing, but price remains the key – I wouldn’t want to pay more than $500 for an EEE because then I lose the value proposition over a regular laptop. I assume that ASUS will follow the Apple model and drop prices on the low end models as new ones come out. My expectation is that the new 9-inch will be in the 600 range, which is just too expensive for my usage model, but would still be appealing to a traveling business type.


FoldershareI’m starting a new category, called “cloudware” which is how i intend to refer to software that runs in the cloud. This will be my way of documenting what cloudware I actually use and fine useful.

Fitting then that the first entry here is for Foldershare, a beta service from Microsoft that is stunningly simple in its execution. It’s basically a P2P client that runs on your own machines and synchronizes files across them in any folder(s) you specify. It does require a small client download on each PC to work, but the footprint is quite small (On my Asus EEE, its taking up about 10 MB of RAM). However, once the client is installed on each PC you want to sync, all config is done via the Foldershare website. You can also sync files between yourself and other people, permitting collaborative work.

I think the idea is effective because it treats the PC as part of the cloud rather than just a thin client. P2P implicitly assumes that the important content is at those end-nodes, ie the users’ PCs, and not intrinsic to the cloud. Using P2P in this very specific, very focused way is simply brilliant.

It should be noted that they’ve had some hiccups, but hopefully that’s behind them 🙂 I am using it right now for a folder containing a manuscript in draft and it’s incredibly empowering for me to be able to sit at either computer and just start working. The files are even available online if you’re away from your client PCs.

In one sense a purely cloud-based application like Google Docs obviates the need to keep files in sync. However, cloud-based productivity apps are still orders of magnitude behind the desktop equivalents. Even Open Office still doesn’t suffice for my needs compared to Microsoft Word. There’s simply no way to (yet) replicate the productivity of working on your home PC by working exclusively in the cloud. This is why Foldershare is so interesting – it lets you work as you normally would, but augments that by letting you tap into the distributed nature of the cloud. It’s the best of both worlds and until pure cloudware catches up to regular software in terms of functionality, it’s going to be a better solution than working exclusively online.