Windows Enterprise Desktop


November 22, 2010  5:36 PM

Another item for your SSD toolkit: CrystalDiskInfo

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

If you work with solid state disks, you’re probably already familiar with the various tools that your drive vendors provide for their units. Mostly, these are tools for checking and upgrading firmware, but occasionally,  you’ll also come across a great tool like the Intel SSD Toolbox as well (note: a new version of this tool — v.2.0.1.000 — was released on October 19, 2010, so if you haven’t grabbed it yet follow the link and do that right now).

But there is at least one vendor-neutral tool that’s also worth adding to your system admin/troubleshooting toolbox if you work with SSDs — namely, Crystal Dew World’s (how the Japanese come up with these weird and wonderful Website names continues to amaze and delight me) CrystalDiskInfo utility can help with several key items of information:

  • Firmware revision: This tells you the version number for the SSD firmware installed on the drive you’re inspecting. This can be a key element in obtaining the best possible performance from an SSD, and is information worth knowing
  • Supported Features: This tells you what advanced features are turned on for the drive you’re inspecting. The TRIM feature is probably the most important item to look for. TRIM provides erasure optimization for SSDs, and allows blocks of data to be flagged for erasure and re-use, and permits garbage collection to be deferred until a convenient time, while also permitting the drive to manage its free space internally and to make sure it can generally provide blank pages for writing to satisfy pending write requests — SSDs can write to occupied pages, but they must erase those pages before writing can occur, which slows writes down. Likewise SSDs write data at the block level, not the page level, so writing requires special handling especially when used in tandem with write-leveling algorithms used on SSDs to keep “wear” even across the entire disk.
  • Other features you’re likely to see turned on for PC SSDs include: SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology, a monitoring system common on most hard disks and modern storage devices, including SSDs), 48bit LBA (48-bit logical block addressing introduced to support a liner addressing scheme on hard disks introduced with ATA-6 in 2003), and NCQ (native command queueing, a technology for improving SATA hard disk performance by enabling the disk firmware to opimtize the order in which it satisfied read requests).
  • Other features you won’t find on SSDs, but will find for conventional hard disks are APM (Advanced Power Management, used to turn down power consumption on conventional spinning drives when they’re idle, but unnecessary on SSDs) and AAM (automated acoustic management, used to keep the noise that spinning drives can emanate to a minimum, also unnecessary on SSDs, which have no moving parts). You also won’t see temperature reported for SSDs, though such information is customary on SMART hard disks.

CrystalDiskInfo shows all of these things, and more, as you can see here:

Output for an Intel 80GB X25-M SSD

Output for an Intel 80GB X25-M SSD

A bit more data is presented for conventional (spinning) hard disks, like this Samsung 1GB SpinPoint drive, including temperature information, and lots of sector handling stats:

There's more to report on spinning drives

There is more to report on spinning drives

Best of all, this tool is freeware, and thus can’t strain your tools budget even one little bit. Check it out: you’re bound to like it. The same site also offers other free tools as well, and will reward the download and playtime required to learn them.

November 19, 2010  8:58 PM

Interesting New System Shenanigans

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’m currently in the throes of building a new primary production PC, and getting ready to migrate from my current production machine to its immanent successor. As I’ve gone through the latest build process I’m astounded by how much computing power you can buy for the bucks these days, and how much easier it’s getting to put complex systems together. Knocking on wood, I’m also happy to report that my new box ran the first time I powered it up and I was able to go straight from the initial power-on test to the OS install phase. This isn’t exactly a first for me, but it’s rare enough that I’m pretty happy about that aspect of the experience.

I did go through some “interesting behavior” during Windows7 installation, though: for some reason, I couldn’t load the OS from my install DVD when I loaded it into the brand-new LG WH10LS30 Blu-ray burner. And it wouldn’t install from my handy-dandy external USB-based DVD burner either (essential for somebody like me who sometimes works on ultraportable notebook and netbook PCs): the installer informed me that a driver was missing without providing me too much guidance to figure which one was AWOL, or where to go find the right one. So I created a new Windows 7 bootable UFD by using the Win7Professional x64 .iso from MSDN along with the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool and handled the install that way instead.

With a brand-new virgin machine at my disposal and some prior experience with SSDs under my belt, I knew to configure the system to run AHCI in the BIOS before the install, which led to a successful and simple first installation onto the 120GB OCZ Vertex2 drive I chose for the system/boot drive on that machine. The mobo is an Asus P6X58D-E with an Intel i7-930 CPU, a GTX460 graphics card, 12 GB of G.Skill DDR3-1600 RAM (3x4GB DIMMs), which also gives me SATA 3 (6.0 Gbps) and USB 3.0 interfaces to play with as well. I chose the Corsair H70 CPU cooler for the unit’s LGA1366 CPU, and its liquid cooling has proved pretty capable: the machine normally runs at temps from 36 – 42 °C, while it seldom exceeds 70 °C under heavy loads or stress testing (I’ve overclocked the CPU from its nominal 2.8 GHz speed to 3.8 GHz, and have also boosted the clock and memory rates on the GTX460 graphics card as well thanks to the killer MSI Afterburner utility).

I also hit an interesting gotcha while bringing the system’s firmware and drivers up to date, as I ran the OCZ 1.24 Firmware update utility, just released yesterday (11/18/2010). As recommended I did make an image backup of the drive before tackling this task, so when my machine blue-screened during the firmware update, I didn’t break too much of a sweat. I did find myself wondering if munged firmware would require me to return the drive to OCZ for a replacement, but when I saw the drive still correctly identified in the BIOS after a reboot, I breathed a sigh of relief. All I had to do was remove the SSD from its home machine, mount it on another Windows box, and run the firmware update utility on a system where the drive being updated was not the system drive, and everything worked flawlessly. To my delight, upon re-inserting the drive into its home system, and tweaking the BIOS to restore it to its proper boot position during start-up, the contents of the drive were completely unaffected. I’d more than halfway expected to have to reformat the SSD and then use my install UFD to reload the image from that system’s backup drive.

Over the next week to ten days I’ll be finishing up the new machine install and configuration, after which I’ll use a new copy of LapLink PC Mover to migrate my production environment from my current/old production machine to this brand-spanking new one. Count on me to report further on learning and experience as I go through those motions. I’m also going to have to find a local machine shop to make a clean cut-out in the side panel of the Antec 902 case in which I made this build: in attaching the H70 cooler to the unit’s 120mm rear exhaust fan mount points, the cooler projects about 3/8″ outside the normal limits of the enclosure. I’ll post pictures once I get this all straightened out. Please let me know if you’d like me to post complete hardware specs for this unit, too: I paid around $1,800 for its components, but I think you can buy all those parts brand-new right now for more like $1,600.


November 17, 2010  3:51 PM

Thurrott on IE 6 Virtualization: Use Unibrowse

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In a couple of recent blogs, I’ve examined various approaches to keeping access to Web sites and pages that are built to work with IE 6 rather than newer Internet Explorer versions in a Windows 7 environment (The Downside of Virtualizing Web-based Apps? Legal entanglements, for one… and Less than a VM, More Compatible than a Plain Host OS:  App Virtualization for another). The issue of how to do browser virtualization to access IE 6 on a Windows 7 desktop without incurring potential legal liability for the pieces and parts of XP that must be integrated into the runtime for the IE 6 wrapper is apparently “interesting” in both the legal sense and in the sense of a celebrated Chinese curse (“May you live in interesting times”).

Windows maven Paul Thurrott suggests an interesting technology fix in  a recent SuperSite blog entitled “Solving IE 6 Compatibility Issues Doesn’t Require Expense, Complexity of Virtualization.” In a nutshell, his prescription is a software solution called Browsium Unibrows that enables IE 6 access only to those pages or Websites that specifically need it, often on an organization’s own intranet. It’s set up to run as an IE 8 (or 9) child process that hides all the underlying complexity from its users and involves a minimal (under 100 MB) memory footprint. It enables users to acces sites with older, incompatible software versions of Flash, Java, and so forth on a per-page basis, and works with Group Policy rules to do its thing. Microsoft does require that IE 6 support elements be downloaded separately during installation, with relevant licenses for XP to match, so legal entaglements are avoided.

The program is in beta right now, but is expected to go commercial sometime soon. The software may be licensed for a mere $5 per seat per year. As Thurrott observes this is a good deal for a temporary solution to compatibility problems before April 8, 2014, when everything will have to migrate anyway as XP support vanishes completely. Sounds interesting…maybe you should check it out!


November 16, 2010  5:16 PM

The Downside of Virtualizing Web-based Apps? Legal entanglements, for one…

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

We’ve been living in a brave new world of Web-based apps for nearly a decade now, and some of the smelly old birds that took off in the early days are coming home to roost. What do I mean? Well, check out this recent story by Mary Jo Foley entitled “Gartner: Existing options for migrating from IE 6 are too pricey, risky” to see what I’m talking about. Her basic point is that Gartner’s research tells them that many organizations are still supporting or continue to standardize on IE 6 because they don’t want to budge from a substantial installed base of IE 6 based applications, many of which are line-of-business or downright mission critical.

Sure, it’s easy to build programs to interact with users via a Web browser, but the more customized (and browser-dependent) that code becomes, the harder it also becomes to move the code base forward as newer browser versions replace older ones. I can’t help but believe this is exactly what makes products like the InstallFree 7Bridge (which I blogged about last week) so appealing to so many enterprise customers because it enables them to move their computing platforms forward to Windows 7, while allowing them to access their IE 6 dependent services within a workable wrapper that looks and acts like IE 6 on XP inside the envelope, but that drops into the Windows 7 runtime environment with nary a ripple or problem.

What’s wrong with this approach, you ask? Here’s what Mary Jo says with chilling effect:

Companies including InstallFree, VMware, Symantec and Spoon.Net are offering tools specifically for virtualizing older versions of IE for use on Windows 7, Gartner said. “They embed certain OS components with the IE ‘bubbles’ to allow IE6 or IE7 to run and provide compatibility. But this kind of virtualization may run afoul of Microsoft licensing,” Gartner is warning its clients.

Furthermore, she quotes as follows from Gartner’s advice to enterprise customers regarding requests for “indemnification clauses” they should make:

Request Microsoft to grant specific contractual amendments to allow you to virtualize IE6 as a Windows 7 compatibility solution without fear of reprisal (but consider that Microsoft could still pursue your application virtualization vendor with legal action). Organizations in need of IE6 compatibility solutions that don’t have sufficient licenses to use Terminal Services and want to comply with Microsoft’s recommendation to avoid IE6 application virtualization should petition Microsoft for use of Windows 2003 Server software and associated Remote Desktop Services (RDS) client access licenses (CALs) for the sole use of accessing IE6 at no charge through 8 April 2014.

Microsoft has yet to comment on the potential for legal issues that might arise from third parties (such as InstallFree, VMWare, Symantec, and even Spoon.net) bundling older operating sytems components and capabilities along with older code to create usable, Windows-7-friendly runtime environments. But gosh, unless everybody’s planning on getting off the IE 6 bus by the time all XP support ends forever on April 8, 2014, this could be a huge potential liability for such organizations to swallow. Should be really interesting to see how this one turns out.


November 15, 2010  4:17 PM

Tempting Fate Doesn’t Always Pay Off

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’ve got an older, but still pretty powerful HP notebook I use for testing and watching the occasional video. It’s a HDX9203KW, aka “The Dragon” because of its snazzy exterior design. With 8 GB of RAM and 1.5 TB of disk space, it’s pretty powerful as notebooks go, and it runs Windows 7 like a top — most of the time. Thing is, HP never released a full complement of Windows 7 drivers for this notebook (it’s fully covered for Vista, but these units were so big and expensive, HP discontinued the model after only two years of production, and they apparently didn’t see fit to lead their buyers into the brave new world of Windows 7).

Thanks to the folks at the Notebook Review “HP HDX Dragon Owner’s Lounge” plus a little help and expert steering from my friend John RV Jones (a fellow Dragon owner who worked his way through the upgrade a couple of months before I had time to tackle it myself, and consequently saved me oodles of time running around and running down drivers and potential issues. There’s also a peachy Windows 7 Installer’s Guide, too.), I have been able to get Windows 7 up and running on this machine. In fact, I’ve got all the hardware working properly, but it doesn’t work with all the most current drivers for the various devices installed on the machine (I’m guessing it probably gets down to BIOS support issues and HP simply hasn’t updated the BIOS to incorporate elements specific to Windows 7 because it doesn’t support that OS for this machine).

Thus, DriverAgent reports four drivers are “behind the times” on this machine, including:

  • The HP Bluetooth module
  • My Authentec AES2501A fingerprint scanner
  • The SigmaTel High Definition Audio codec
  • The integrated HP WebCam

Sure, I can install those newer drivers (and I’ve tried, believe me). But when I do, the related devices quit working. That’s why I keep an eye on the aforementioned owners lounge to see if anybody’s hacked any new drivers lately, but otherwise keep those items where they currently stand, so as to keep the device working properly.

Interestingly, I’ve also got an Asus Eee PC 1000HE which that company released before Windows 7 went commercial. Nevertheless, they’ve got a complete set of Windows 7 drivers and have even published a guide on how to upgrade the unit from its original Windows XP Home to any of several Windows 7 versions (I run Windows 7 Professional on my notebooks so I can use Remote Desktop Connection to access them from my primary desktop machine, but I’ve also successfully installed Windows 7 Starter and Windows 7 Home Premium on this notebook as well). Two very different attitudes and levels of support from two very different PC makers where, perhaps not surprisingly the up-and-coming upstart company (Asus) is a lot more helpful and supportive than the long-time market leader (HP). Go figure!


November 9, 2010  1:10 AM

Less than a VM, More Compatible than a Plain Host OS: App Virtualization

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Late last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to Alon Yaffe, the Director of Marketing at InstallFree.com, the maker of a snazzy tool for application virtualization. In particular we talked about InstallFree 7bridge, an application compatibility solution that addresses the kinds of problems that can pop up when legacy or homegrown applications don’t run properly (or at all) in Windows 7. InstallFree 7bridge is particularly good at dealing with the kinds of issues that changing Windows compatibility settings in Windows 7 doesn’t fix, or when there are out-and-out conflicts, mismatches, or missing bits and pieces that prevent apps built for older Windows vesions from running in a native Windows 7 environment.

7bridge closes the gap between Windows 7 and other key software components

7bridge closes the gap between Windows 7 and other key software components

Rather than launching an entire virtual machine (VM) to encompass and support a customized runtime environment that supports necessary functionality, InstallFree 7bridge runs in user mode, and creates a bridge between the application runtime and a virtual and physical interface into the Windows 7 host environment. Special filter drivers and what Yaffe jokingly called “special voodoo” come into play in the virtualization environment that handle COM, DCOM, the registry and various object requests that the application (or applications) need to work properly. The application launches in an environment called the PowerGuest Sandbox where it is equipped with all the parts and pieces it needs on the fly, including application dependency items, the application itself, application updates, and application add-ons or expansions. Everything binds together inside the sandbox so the user sees normal application behavior, and a special user data layer introduces statefulness and personalization to this otherwise generic but custom-crafted runtime environment. InstallFree 7bridge even handles GPOs including user rights, access rights, security controls, and so forth as if the app were running its native host Windows environment.

The key to the voodoo part, apparently, is that InstallFree has a special tool it uses to bundle all the necessary runtime elements (except the user data part, which gets bound in at launch time) into a purpose-built runtime file that can be accessed via a fileshare across a network. Organizations and companies that need application specific runtime instances can get them built for $4K at InstallFree, then pay $25 a seat to push the custom runtime to as many simultaneous users as they care to pay for. The package and encapsulation toolset used to build the custom runtimes is also available (for $10K) and per-seat charges for packages customers build themselves go up to $50 (but the number of packages is unlimited and presumably customers won’t want to take that route unless the economics of buying on a per-package basis are more expensive than the general purpose solution with packaging/encapsulation and as many custom packages as are needed).

This technology is incredibly slick, and offers a low overhead way to deliver completely seamless application compatbility. In fact, inside the app, even built-in Windows interfaces reflect whatever version of Windows is used to generate the custom runtime package, so users absolutely maintain the original computing experience. This one’s worth checking out, and digging into, and offers the kind of compatibility (running multiple versions of JRE, IE 6, or older Office versions are no problem at all). Check it out at the InstallFree 7bridge product page.


November 5, 2010  8:50 PM

Way Cool Repair Tool: Reimage

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I read Windows Secrets regularly (a newsletter from Brian Livingston, Woody Leonhard, and a whole crew of other Windows stalwarts and experts). As I skimmed over the last issue, I chortled at the sight of an advertisement that promised to “…simply fix… Windows PC’s. Once only available to technicians, now available to home users. It will scan and diagnose all of your PC’s problems, then automatically fix them” [I've requested permission to reproduce the actual ad from Windows Secrets but because they haven't yet gotten back to me  with a yea or a nay, I can only paraphrase and describe things for now.]

The Reimage home page banner says it all

The Reimage home page banner says it all

“Ha!” I thought to myself “Another attempt to take advantage of those who don’t know enough about Windows to fix it for themselves.” Nevertheless, I was curious enough about the program that I started Googling (or was it Binging? I can’t really remember…) around to see what kinds of responses the program had picked up from the trade press. PC World said it was OK, but needed more work back in 2008, and more recent reviews in 2009 seemed to indicate the developers had made good progress in turning this tool into something production-worthy.

Then at day’s end yesterday, by an amazing coincidence, one of my test machines (an HP HDX 9203W notebook PC aka “The Dragon” because of its size and cool external embellishments) started to develop severe stability problems. IE kept bogging down horribly, the unit ran waaaaaaay more slowly than usual, and, worst of all, when I attempted to restart or shut down, the machine would hang interminably at the “Shutting down…” screen and that process would never complete, forcing me to impose what Windows designates a “disruptive shutdown” to reboot the system (hold the power button down until the unit turns itself off).

When this kept happening this morning, I ran the Windows integrity check sfc /scannow at the command line, only to have Windows tell me it found no integrity issues in need of repair. I run Spyware Doctor with AntiVirus on that machine, and it found no telltale signs of malware of any kind, either. Something was obviously kerfluffed somewhere in the software, and it dawned on me that it might be worth plunking down the bucks necessary to see if Reimage could live up to its claims to restore stability on increasingly unstable systems.

So, off I went to download the program onto the ailing Dragon, buy a key (one costs $60 retail, but you  can buy three for $90 so that’s what I did, so as to be able to test the program on other machines as problems come up in the future, as they occasionally but invariably will on Windows machines), and run the analysis and repair utility. Sure enough, the tool liked my hardware and also found my security flawless but indicated I had stability problems it could  repair. So I fired off the repair, and I’m very happy to report that my Dragon is once again hale and healthy, and running as fast and capably as it usually does.

Other reports I’ve read about Reimage say it’s equally good at cleaning up after malware and spyware, but I wasn’t willing to deliberately infect a machine at this moment to try that side of the program out. But from what I can see for PCs that can’t be restored to a standard image, or for which a recent stable backup or image isn’t readily available, Reimage is worth a try as a second-line-of-defense repair and restoration tool. (I blush to confess I hadn’t backed the Dragon up for a couple of weeks, and because HP doesn’t support Windows 7 for this unit, I had to jump through enough hoops to find, test, and install working drivers that I didn’t relish the prospect of a “rebuild from scratch.”) It certainly did the trick for me in this case, anway.

[Note on 11/8/2010: After a couple of trouble-free restarts post-Reimage, my "hang on shutdown" issue returned to the Dragon. Turns out the temperature monitor utility that runs with the sidebar gadget All CPU Meter 3.3 — namely, Core Temp — was stopping the shutdown process from completing. As long as I remember to terminate the Core Temp process in Task Manager before restarting or shutting down my machine, everything works perfectly! Sigh. Windows. It's always something.]


November 4, 2010  9:04 PM

More HTML 5 and Silverlight Hoopla

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Check out Paul Thurrott’s latest take on Silverlight vs. HTML 5 in the wake of his and Mary Jo Foley’s reporting from the Professional Developer’s Conference (PDC10) held in the Seattle area last Thursday and Friday (10/28-29/2010) about which I wrote in my last blog (“MS Backs HTML5, Turns Down Silverlight“). His latest coverage is entitled “Microsoft and HTML 5: Solving the Compatibility Problem.” It follows up on the outcry that followed the eminently reasonable take on HTML 5 vs. Silverlight that Microsoft VP Bob Muglia shared with Mary Jo at that conference, but which put developers who’ve invested — some quite heavily — in Silverlight technologies up in arms, and in a furious uproar.

That’s why the Silverlight Team Blog includes some feasting upon crow from Mr. Muglia to the following effect “Silverlight is very important and strategic to Microsoft…[it's] a core application development platform for Windows, and it’s the development platform for Microsoft Phone.” While this statement is certainly more consistent with Microsoft’s long-term, long-time position on Web applications and development technologies, like Mr. Thurrott, I’m disappointed to now understand that HTML 5 may not actually be Microsoft’s chosen way to bring together mobile and desktop views of Web sites, services, and even applications inside a single seamless and even standard environment.

Here’s a lengthy quote from Thurrott’s commentary with which I couldn’t agree more:

And when it comes to web standards, the industry is rallying around something called HTML 5, which is really HTML 5 plus a host of related technologies, including in-progress versions of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), the JavaScript/ECMAScript programming language, and more. HTML 5 is more promise than reality–right now–but even Microsoft is embracing it, their predictable backpedaling on Silverlight notwithstanding. It’s pretty clear that the changes we’re seeing in Internet Explorer 9 are only the beginning: I expect this trend to accelerate in Windows 8, due just 18 months from now.

On the mobile side, HTML 5 is a bit more future-leaning, but could, I think, bridge the gap between disparate and incompatible platforms like the iPhone, Android, and, soon, Windows Phone, just as it is on the desktop. Today, these smart phones all run different OSes with incompatible apps. But if developers create mobile web solutions instead of native apps–as they have on the desktop–this problem can be erased, where possible. In many cases, there won’t be any need to develop three completely different apps in different environments, and with different languages. Instead, they can create a single web app.

Thurrot says that Microsoft is “…embracing HTML 5 as its path to the future.” Gosh, I hope he’s right, but I’m not yet completely convinced that this is exactly what’s going on myself. I still see strong evidence that Microsoft is betting on more than one horse (Silverlight included) so as to be sure of backing the ultimate winner in that race.


November 2, 2010  3:49 PM

MS Backs HTML5, Turns Down Silverlight

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Boy! Talk about a hidden gem showing up in the Windows trade news. On Halloween evening, Paul Thurrott was obviously not servicing trick-or-treaters, because he posted an article at 8:55 PM that evening entitled “Microsoft Embraces HTML 5, Deemphasizes Silverlight.” This in turn cites long-time MS maven Mary Jo Foley who broke this news on  Friday in her story: “Microsoft: Our strategy with Silverlight has shifted.” She noticed that Silverlight came in for very little mention at the recent Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC: an annual developer shindig that Microsoft usually hosts in the Seattle area, PDC10 was held this year on October 28 and 29; the preceding link provides access to video recordings for most if not all of the content from this event ).

MJ caught up with Bob Muglia, the MS President who’s in charge of the MS server and tools arm, and asked him what was up with Silverlight and got the following answers (I paraphrase here, see the original for direct quotes):

  • HTML5 will be the dynamic Web technology for everything except Windows Phone: it’s the key to building pages that “…feel and run like an app or a game” (this quote from Dean Hachamovitch, MS VP in charge of Internet Explorer, during the opening PDC keynote on 10/28)
  • Silverlight remains the development platform for Windows Phone (a new version, Silverlight 5 is in the works but no timing or release info is available yet)
  • HTML(5) is a true cross-platform solution for everything else, including the Apple IOS platform

This is great news for Web developers everywhere, because it means that MS is going to support the full range of HTML5 capabilities in Internet Explorer. Because HTML is a real industry standard — albeit an emerging one, with the W3C not committed to a finished recommendation for many years to come — this should help Web site designers, developers, and even companies that build Web development tools and technologies, hew the HTML5 line with more confidence and competence than they might otherwise be able to do.


October 25, 2010  2:14 PM

Why my ISP sometimes drives me crazy

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

My ISP is Time Warner Cable/Road Runner, to whom I pay about $50 a month for so-called “Turbo Internet” service (which advertises download speed of 15.0 Mbps and a Turbo with PowerBoost mode that can take those speeds up to 30 Mbps, and upload speeds of up to 3.0 Mbps). Most of the time, I’m very happy with the service that they provide to me. But sometimes, as is inevitable with any service that provides egress to a public and shared resource, things do bog down from time to time. When such slowdowns are intermittent and infrequent, I’ve been around long enough to know it’s my job to grin and bear it. When such slowdowns become frequent or chronic, I always contact Time-Warner to try to find out what’s up.

Lately, they’ve been employing a couple of tactics that drive me absolutely crazy. Let me describe them, and then I’ll explain why I’m convinced that these tactics are unfair, misguided, and designed to exploit the ignorance of most Internet users about the way networks work and behave.

Tactic 1: The Speed Test
Any time a Time-Warner/RoadRunner tech support person analyzes network behavior they rely on a special network speed test tool. For my part of the world that tool resides at http://speedtest.texas.rr.com/, and it usually produces results that look like this:

Time-Warner/RoadRunner's speed test utility

Time-Warner/RoadRunner speed test utility

What’s wrong with this picture? Not much, apparently, except that the results don’t necessarily reflect the speed of access that Time-Warner/Road Runner provides to the Internet. This speed test accesses the internal Road Runner network, to which my home is directly attached (in fact, the HTML Title value for this Web page reads “TWC Austin RDC Bandwidth Speed Test” in my Web browsers). Thus, it represents a “best-case” value for the maximum upload and download speeds that any node on my home network can achieve going through the gateway and onto the Time-Warner network, irrespective of final destination.

Now let’s compare these values to those returned by the SpeedTest link that’s built into my Network Meter desktop gadget, located online at http://ip-address.cc/speedtest/. I don’t necessary endorse or recommend this tool, but it’s readily available to me because the link is integrated into the desktop gadget that I use to monitor my network connection (and performance and health values) on my Windows 7 PCs. Here are values recorded within seconds of completing the previous Road Runner sanctioned speed test (and I like them, because they do not reflect some of the pathology I’ve been trying to get Road Runner to explain to me recently):

The ip-address.cc speed test is integrated into Network Meter

The ip-address.cc speed test is integrated into Network Meter

Notice that the very difference that you see between the two reports is what I’m trying to get Road Runner to address — namely, why is my connection to the Internet (that vast realm of IP addresses outside the Time-Warner/Road Runner network domains) running slowly? In this case the difference is 25.48 Mbps inside, and 8.46 outside, or 13.02 Mbps (153% of the smaller value and 51% of the greater value). When I call Time-Warner, it’s usually between 12 and 25 Mbps inside, and under 3 Mbps outside, or slow enough to make my e-mail quit working reliably and to make many Web pages refuse to load.

Frankly, I don’t necessarily care how fast my connection to Time-Warner’s servers might be, since I don’t use them very often, except perhaps as a sanity check to make sure my premises equipment is working properly (if the connection to the Time Warner network were as slow as my connection to the Internet that would strongly suggest that my network was the source for such problems, rather than what’s happening on the ISP’s side of that interconnection). And in fact, that leads me directly to Tactic number 2.

Tactic Number 2: It’s your network/PC, stupid!
The last time I contacted Time-Warner tech support was last Friday, when my wife expressed her exasperation at not being able to access her Yahoo email or the Russian-language news sites she accesses every day (both of which are outside the Time-Warner umbrella, and thus subject to the “inside-outside” speed differences I describe in the preceding tactic). I spent a very frustrating half-hour chatting with a support associate who put forward the following assertions:

1. Because Time-Warner’s speed test levels were at or above guaranteed service level values, their network was behaving properly. I get the reasoning behind this, but my service is not called “Time-Warner Turbo local network access” it’s called Time-Warner Turbo Internet, and in fact the Internet is what I want to access.

2. The next questions from the support tech elicited the facts that (a) I had a LAN at my home and (b) that Time-Warner was neither providing nor supporting the boundary equipment (I have a D-Link DIR-655 switch/router/firewall/WAP device at the boundary, and a D-Link D2100-AP 802.11g WAP hanging off a NetGear 108GS switch in my office. FWIW, both appear to be behaving properly and the logs from neither device suggest problems with either one).

3. Because my machines were having problems accessing the Internet at higher (or in fact, acceptable) speed levels, the problems lay with my machines and/or my Internet gateway device. We explored the idea that the Web browser caches needed refreshing and that local PC firewalls were causing the problems, but I had to observe that with up to half-a-dozen machines running different versions of Windows 7 and different Web browsers, it was unlikely that all would suffer the same slowdowns because all their environments were different. It’s also not clear to me how a poisoned Web cache or misconfigured browser could deliver normal results for access to the Time-Warner network and slow results for Internet access without indicating the presence of some kind of bottleneck at the boundary between Time-Warner’s internal networks and the Internet, rather than between my network and theirs.

3. This led to the observation that Ethernet is a shared medium and thus, individual machines on my LAN would have only a fraction of total bandwidth available to them for Internet access. This explanation totally overlooks that only one or two nodes are likely to access the Internet at any given moment, and that the speed difference values between inside and outside exceed the ratio of machines making simultaneous access to the overall bandwidth available. And the same observation I made for the preceding item also applies here — namely, that if the slowdown/bottleneck straddled the boundary between my network and theirs, then the speed test results for Time-Warner local access and real honest-to-goodness Internet access would have to be closer, and service level guarantees not met for that local connection/access as well.

That was the point where I gave up, and resolved to write this blog to document what I’d experienced. I’m going to send it to a local manager at Time-Warner and ask for a comment. I’ll report back here on what happens, and find myself more than ordinarily curious to see what kind of response I’m going to get.

 Frankly, I don’t see how my network can be at fault when it can access the ISP’s own network at or above guaranteed performance values. It’s only the next “big hop” onto the Internet where problems manifest, and as far as I can tell, that has to be their problem not mine. So when their support associate indicated that I should schedule a for-a-fee service call to have a technician come and troubleshoot my network for me, I kind of lost my cool and terminated the support chat session. Upon reflection, I’m reconsidering and my decide to bring in a technician to see what he or she can find — but only if Time-Warner will refund the charges if the network problems turn out to be on their side of the demark, not on my side, as I strongly believe will turn out to the case.


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