Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Improving Network Performance (while "Saving the Planet"?)

One of the downsides of running a high performance tech system, especially in a domestic/home business environment is the cost of keeping it all going. Paying for the tech, is one thing, but it's the ongoing costs that inevitably start to hurt, particularly the energy costs, which here in the UK seem to increase on an almost monthly basis.

Whilst Apple products do seem to get more and more energy efficient (I'm not too comfortable with the "green" tag) it's easy to forget about some of the peripherals that are needed to support anything other than the simplest network.

Items like network switches and powerline adaptors are often overlooked for upgrade because they usually sit out of sight and out of mind. But put your hands on an old Netgear 5-way gigabit switch or its big clunky power supply, and you'll notice how hot it is.  And that heat is an unwanted by-product that you are paying for.

I recently swapped my 10+ year old Netgear switch for a TRENDnet™ 5-port Gigabit GREENnet (Amazon - £15) switch which claims to reduce power consumption by up to 70% (compared against standard TRENDnet switches). I'm guessing even greater savings over the Netgear kit, based on the simple facts that the new switch runs completely cooly and uses a 5V adapter as opposed to a 12V unit. The GREENnet switch is also a fraction of the size, has a cool green LED display and a speed indicator. The energy savings come as a result of the switch automatically adjusting power voltage as required.

The other piece of kit I've exchanged is the powerline adaptor kit which links the modem/router combo in the office to the GREENnet switch in the lounge downstairs.

Until now, I'd been using the old Comtrend adaptors which came with the old BT Vision box. These were massive great things which also generated huge amount of heat. I'm not sure what the throughput rating was on the Comtrend but I would guess that with their age it probably wasn't much more than 75-100Mbps. With the old BT Broadband this wasn't really a limiting factor since the maximum download speed I could get was 8Mbps. Although the Virgin cable has now been upgraded to 120Mbps there was no way I was going to be able take advantage of anything like that without changing the system. Truth be told, the wired connection was about half the speed of the wireless speed because of this bottleneck.

 I've now installed, well, plugged in, a pair of 5000Mbps TP-Link Mini Powerline Adaptors (Amazon - £30). These are half the size of the Comtrend s and initial tests show that I'm getting wired and wireless download speeds of about 70-75Mbps, a 200% improvement.

The TP-Link adaptors also have an energy saving feature and will shut down if no signals are going through the wire. They claim an 85% improvement in energy consumption rates.

I could improve performance further if I could plug the adaptors into a wall socket; currently they have to go into power strips, but if I was going to rewire the house to put in extra wall sockets, I might as well put in all the network cabling at the same time and not bother with any of the tools in this post!

The only thing left to do is to wait for the next electricity bill to arrive…

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Silence Is Golden - Update

Almost immediately after posting my last article, iTunes stopped sending AirPlay signals to my Airport Express device. I felt a bit like the Apple ecosystem had become a petty minded sentient being who was taking the mickey. Once again I went through each and every one of the possible fixes I have accumulated over the past few weeks but to no avail. Nothing I tried seemed to work.

But then a bit of serendipity took place. I recently downloaded a small menu bar utility called Output (available from the Mac App Store - 69p) which simply allows you to easily select input/output devices from a drop down list of available devices. I regularly swap output devices so this is a godsend saving the hassle of having to either go into the System Preferences or remember to hit the Alt button when selecting the volume icon.

Output showed the Airport Express as one of the available output devices and when I selected it, lo and behold, iTunes played out through the stereo system downstairs. It's not true Airplay since you can only select a single output device at a time, but it demonstrated that my system was actually OK and that it was most likely an iTunes issue.

Once I'd established that the problem appeared to be an iTunes bug, it meant I could stop spending (wasting?) hours trying to fix it if it recurred. As if by magic, shortly after that, the problem resolved itself, and then later in May a new minor version of iTunes appeared (11.0.3) and I've not seen the problem since.

Has iTunes been fixed? No clues from Apple in that respect in the release notes. Which is another reason for disliking some of Apple's reluctance to be more open about its software. We never get to see whether bugs have been addressed (and potentially fixed for eternity), or whether they've just disappeared for a while but may reappear in the future. As a former developer, I've always tried to be open about known bugs which have been fixed, whilst trying to be clear that sometimes the little beggars will show up again. This helps prevent people from suing you, and it's a stance I wish more big companies would take - including Apple!