DR preparedness in real time

As many may have seen there has been serious flooding throughout the front range of Colorado.  At the moment the flooding hasn’t impacted our homes or offices but there’s nothing like a recent, nearby disaster to focus one’s thoughts on how prepared we are to handle a similar situation.


What we did when serious flooding became a possibility

As I thought about what I should be doing last night with flooding in nearby counties, I moved my computers, printer, some other stuff from the basement office to an upstairs area in case of basement flooding. I also moved my “Time Machine” backup disk upstairs as well which holds the iMac’s backups (hourly for last 24 hrs, daily for past month and weekly backups [for as many weeks that can be held on a 2TB disk drive]). I have often depended on time machine backups to recover files I inadvertently overwrote, so it’s good to have around.

I also charged up all our mobiles, laptops & iPads and made sure software and email were as up-to-date as possible.  I packed up my laptop & iPad, with my most recent monthly and weekly backups and some other recent work printouts into my backpack and left it upstairs ready to go at a moments notice.

The next day post-mortum

This morning with less panic and more time to think, the printer was probably the least of my concerns but the internet and telecommunications (phones & headset) should probably have been moved upstairs as well.

Although we have multiple mobile phones, (AT&T) reception is poor in the office and home. It would have been pretty difficult to conduct business here with the mobile alone if we needed to.  I use a cable provider for business phones but also have a land line for our home. So I (technically) have triple backup for telecom, although to use the mobile effectively, we would have had to leave the office.

Internet access

Internet is another matter though. We also use cable for internet and the modem that supplies office internet connects to a cable close to where it enters the house/office. All this is downstairs, in the basement. The modem is powered using basement plugs (although it does have a battery as well) and there’s a hard ethernet link between the cable modem and an Airport Express base station (also downstairs) which provides WiFi to the house and LAN for the house iMacs/PCs.

Considering what I could do to make this a bit more flood tolerant, I should have probably moved the cable modem and Airport Express upstairs connecting it to the TV cable and powering it using upstairs power. Airport Express WiFi would have provided sufficient Internet access to work but with the modem upstairs connecting an ethernet cable to a desktop would also have been a possibility.

I do have the hotspot/tethering option for my mobile phone but as discussed above, reception is not that great. As such, it may have not sufficed for the household, let alone a work computer.

Internet is available at our local library and at many nearby coffee shops.  So, worst case was to take my laptop and head to a coffee shop/library that still had power/WiFi and camp out all day, for potentially multiple days.

I could probably do better with Internet access. With the WiFi and tethering capabilities available with cellular iPad these days, if I should just purchase one for the office, with a suitable data plan, I could have used the iPad as another hot spot, independent of my mobile. Of course, I would probably go with a different carrier so that reception issues could also be minimized (hoping where one [AT&T] is poor the other [Verizon?] carrier would be fine).

Data availability

Data access outside of the Time Machine disk and the various hard drive backups was another item I considered this morning.  I have a monthly, hard-drive backups, normally kept in a safety deposit box at a local bank.

The bank is in the same flood/fire plane that I am in, but the tell me it’s floodproof, fireproof and earthquake proof.  Call me paranoid but I didn’t see any fire suppression equipment visible in the vault. The vault door although a large quantity of steel and other metals didn’t seem to have waterproof seals surrounding it.  As for earthquakes, concrete walls, steel door doesn’t mean it’s eartquake proof.  But then again, I am paranoid, it would probably survive much better than anything in our home/office.

Also, I keep weekly encrypted backups in the house, alternating between two hard disk drives and keep the most recent upstairs. So between the weeklies, monthlies, and Time Machine I have three distinct tiers of data backups. Of course, the latest monthly was sitting in the house waiting to be moved to the safety deposit box – not good news.

I also have  a (manual) copy of work data on the laptop, current to the last hard backup (also at home). So of my three tiers of backup every single current one of them was in the home/office.

I could do better. Looking at Dropbox and Box for about $100/year/100GB (DropBox, Box is ~40% cheaper) I could keep our important work and home data on cloud storage and have access to it from any Internet accessible location (including with mobile devices) with proper security credentials. Not sure how long it would take to seed this backup we have about 20Gb of family and work office documents and probably another 120GB or so of photos that I would want to keep around or about 140GB of info.  This could provide 5-way redundancy with Time machine, weekly hard drive and monthly hard drive backups and now Box/Dropbox for a for a (office and home) fourth backup, with  the laptop being a fifth (office only) backup.  Seems like cheap insurance at the moment.

The other thing that Box/DropBox would do for me is to provide a synch service with my laptop so that files changed on either device would synch to the cloud and then be copied to all other devices.  This would substitute my current 4th tier of (work) backups with a more current, cloud backup. It would also eliminate the manual copy process performed during every backup to keep my laptop up to date.

I have some data security concerns with using cloud storage, but according to Dropbox they use Amazon S3 for their storage and AES-256 data encryption so that others can’t read your data. They use SSL to transfer data to the cloud.

Where all the keys are held is another matter and with all the hullabaloo with NSA, anything on the internet can be provided to the gov’t with a proper request. But the same could be said for my home computer and all my backups.

There are plenty of other solutions here, Google drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive to name just a few. But from what I have heard Dropbox is best, especially if you have a large number of files.

The major downsides (besides the cost) is that when you power up your system it can take longer while Dropbox scans for out-of-synch files and the time it takes to seed your Dropbox account. This is all dependent on your internet access, but according to a trusted source Dropbox seeding starts with smallest files and works up to the larger ones over time. So there is a good likelihood your office files (outside of PPT) might make it to the cloud sooner than your larger media, databases, and other large files.  I figure we have about ~140GB to be copied to the cloud. I promise to update the post with the time it took to copy this data to the cloud.

Power and other emergency preparedness

Power is yet another concern.  I have not taken the leap to purchase a generator for the home/office. But now think this unwise. Although power has gotten a lot more reliable in our home/office over the years, there’s still a real possibility that there could be a disruption. The areas with serious flooding all around us are having power blackouts this morning and no telling when their power might get back on. So a generator purchase is definitely in my future.

Listening to the news today, there was talk of emergency personnel notifying people that they had 30 minutes to evacuate their houses.  So, next time there is a flood/fire warning in the area I think I will take some time to pack up more than my laptop. Perhaps some other stuff like clothing and medicines that will help us survive and continue to work.

Food and water are also serious considerations. In Florida for hurricane preparedness  they suggest filling up your bathtubs with water or having 1 gallon of water per person per day set aside in case of emergency – didn’t do this last night but should have.  Florida’s family emergency preparedness plan also suggests enough water for 5-7 days.

I think we have enough dry food around the house to sustain us for a number of days (maybe not 7 though). If we consider whats in the freezer and fridge that probably goes up to a couple of weeks or so, assuming we can keep it cold.

Cooking food is another concern. We have propane and camp stoves which would provide rudimentary ability to cook outdoors if necessary as well as an old charcoal grill and bag of charcoal in our car-camping stuff. Which should suffice for a couple of days but probably not a week.

As for important documents they are in that safety deposit box in our flood plain. (May need to rethink that). Wills and other stuff are also in the hands of appropriate family members and lawyers so that’s taken care of.

Another item on their list of things to have for a hurricane is flashlights and fresh batteries. These are all available in our camping stuff but would be difficult to access in a moments notice. So a couple of rechargeable flashlights that were easier to access might be a reasonable investment. The Florida plan further suggests you have a battery operated radio. I happen to have an old one upstairs with the batteries removed – just need to make sure to have some fresh batteries around someplace.

They don’t mention gassing up your car. But we do that as a matter of course anytime harsh weather is forecast.

I think this is about it for now. Probably other stuff I didn’t think of. I have a few fresh fire extinguishers around the home/office but have no pumps. May need to add that to the list…



Photo Credits: September 12 [2013], around 4:30pm [Water in Smiley Creek – Boulder Flood]



Bringing Internet to rural Africa using TV

Read an article the other day from BBC, named TV white space connecting rural Africa about how radio spectrum designed for TV is being used to bring Internet access to rural Africa.

The group promoting TV for Internet connectivity is the 4Afrika Initiative from Microsoft.  Their stated intent is to engage in the economic development of Africa to improve its global competitiveness.

Why TV?

Apparently, the TV spectrum has a number of attributes that make it very useful to provide Internet connectivity.  In the article they talked about 400mhz as being very resilient that propagates well around natural obstructions, through walls and goes long distances.

Although these days, Africa has plenty of undersea cables connecting it to the rest of the world, getting fiber connectivity to rural Africa has been too costly to date.  So if the last mile (or in the case of rural Africa, 100km) problem can be solved then Internet access can be available to all communities.

But the main problem is that this spectrum is usually licensed to TV stations. On the other hand, Africa probably has plenty of TV spectrum not currently being used for active broadcasting, especially across rural Africa.  As such, using this “white space” in TV signals to provide Internet access is a great alternative use of the spectrum.

With a solar powered base station libraries, schools, healthcare centers, government offices, etc., in rural Africa can now be connected to the Internet.  Presently many of these rural Africa locations have no electricity and no telephone lines whatsoever.

Providing internet access to such locations will enable e-learning, more informed access to agricultural markets as well as a plethora of advanced communications technologies currently absent from their villages.

Why Microsoft?

Microsoft has been actively engaged in Africa for over 20 years now.  And more  storage vendors have started listing Africa as a blossoming market for their gear, where they are all engaged in upgrading IT and telecommunications infrastructure. Microsoft has an interesting graphic on their involvement in Africa over the past two decades (see 4Africa Infographic).

We have discussed the emergence of mobile and cloud as a leap-frog technologies propelling Africa and especially Kenya into the information economy, (please see Mobile health (mHealth) takes off in Kenya and Is cloud a leabfrog technology posts). But Internet access is even broader than the just mobile or cloud and is certainly complementary (and for cloud, a necessary infrastructure) for both these technologies.

Africa, welcome to the Information Economy…


Photo Credits: DIY antenna (bottlenet) by robin.elaine

To iPad or not to iPad – part 4

Apple iPad (wi-fi) (from apple.com)
Apple iPad (wi-fi) (from apple.com)

I took the iPad to another conference last month. My experience the last time I did this (see To iPad or not to iPad – part 3) made me much more leary, but I was reluctant to lug the laptop for only a 2-day trip.

Since my recent experience, I have become a bit more nuanced and realistic with my expectations for iPad use on such trips. As you may recall, I have an iPad without 3G networking.

When attending a conference and using a laptop, I occasionally take a few notes, do email, twitter, blog and other work related items. With my iPad I often take copius notes – unclear why other than it’s just easier/quicker to get out of my backpack/briefcase and start typing on. When I take fewer notes usually I don’t have a table/desk to use for the iPad and keyboard.

As for the other items email, twitter, and blogging, my iPad can do all of these items just fine with proper WiFi connectivity. Other work stuff can occasionally be done offline but occasionally requires internet access, probably ~50:50.

iPhone and iPad together

I have found that an iPhone and iPad can make a very useable combination in situations with flaky/inadequate WiFi. While the iPad can attempt to use room WiFi, the iPhone can attempt to use 3G data network to access the Internet. Mostly, the iPhone wins in these situations. This works especially well when WiFi is overtaxed at conferences. The other nice thing is that the BlueTooth (BT) keypad can be paired with either the iPad or the iPhone (it does take time, ~2-5 minutes to make the switch, so I don’t change pairing often).

So at the meeting this past month, I was doing most of my note taking and offline work items with the iPad and blogging, tweeting and emailing with the iPhone.

If the iPad WiFi was working well enough, I probably wouldn’t use the iPhone for most of this. However, I find that at many conferences and most US hotels, WiFi is either not available in the hotel room or doesn’t handle conference room demand well enough to depend on. Whereas, ATT’s 3G network seems to work just fine for most of these situations (probably because, no one is downloading YouTube videos to their iPhone).

A couple of minor quibbles

While this combination works well enough, I do have a few suggestions to make this even better to use,

  • Mouse support – Although, I love the touch screen for most tasks, editing is painful without a mouse. Envision this, you are taking notes, see an error a couple of lines back, and need to fix it. With the iPad/iPhone, one moves your hand from keypad to point to the error on the screen to correct it. Finger pointing is not as quick to re-position cursors as a mouse and until magnification kicks in obscures the error, leading to poor positioning. Using the BT keypad arrow keys are more accurate but not much faster. So, do to bad cursor positioning, I end up deleting and retyping many characters that weren’t needed. As a result, I don’t edit much on the iPad/iPhone. If a BT mouse (Apple’s magic mouse) would pair up with the iPad&iPhone editing would work much better. Alternatively, having some like the old IBM ThinkPad Trackpoint in the middle of a BT keypad would work just fine. Having the arrow keys respond much faster would even be better.
  • iPad to iPhone file transfer capability – Now that I use the iPad offline with an online iPhone, it would be nice if there was some non-Internet way to move data between the two. Perhaps using the BT’s GOEB capabilities to provide FTP-lite services would work. It wouldn’t need high bandwidth as typical use would be to only move a Pages, Numbers, or Keynote file to the iPhone for email attachment or blog posting . It would be great if this were bi-directional. Another option is supporting a USB port but would require more hardware. A BT file transfer makes more sense to me.
  • iPad battery power – Another thing I find annoying at long conferences is iPad battery power doesn’t last all day. Possibly having BT as well as WiFi active may be hurting battery life. My iPad often starts running out of power around 3pm at conferences. To conserve energy, I power down the display between note taking and this works well enough it seems. The display comes back alive whenever I hit a key on the BT keypad and often I don’t even have to retype the keystrokes used to restart the display. More battery power would help.


So great, all this works just fine domestically, but my next business trip is to Japan. To that end, I have been informed that unless I want to spend a small fortune in roaming charges, I should disable iPhone 3G data services while out of country. As such, if I only take my iPad and iPhone, I will have no email/twitter/blog access whenever WiFi is unavailable. If I took a laptop at least it could attach to an Ethernet cable if that were available. However, I have also been told that WiFi is generally more available overseas. Wish me luck.

Anyone know how prevalent WiFi is in Tokyo hotels and airports and how well it works with iPhone/iPad?

Other comments?