Disaster Preparedness

In the early morning of 2009-04-09, somebody climbed down four manholes in Morgan Hill, California (near San Jose) and cut a few cables. This essentially "cut off" much of the area's communications, including the local 911 call center, and the INTERNAL network of a local hospital. The city and county got through it with the help of a group of local ham radio operators, who volunteered their own time and radio equipment to set up temporary communication links between the hospitals, the public safety (police, fire, rescue) agencies, and other relevant sites, while the cables were repaired.

Bruce Perens, known as one of the founders of the Open Source movement, and a fellow amateur radio operator, wrote an article about the incident, where he points out how stupid it is for companies, and especially government and public safety agencies, to allow their core functions to rely on outside parties. The idea is that an organization's technical needs should be hosted in-house as much as possible, so that if the internet or telephone lines go down, they are still able to function- perhaps in a reduced capacity, but they shouldn't be totally "down".

Here's a perfect example. One of my clients is a company whose employees make heavy use of "instant messenger" programs to ask and answer questions, provide updates, and transfer files. It works for them, unless their internet connection is down, in which case they can't connect to AOL's servers. Which means that in order to send a message from one office to another, that message has to go all the way up to AOL's servers in Virginia, and then all the way back down to their office here in Florida. Even though they're in offices which are right next to each other. If this company were using XMPP (aka Jabber) instead of AOL's proprietary system, they would be able to host an XMPP server within the building, and all of their IM conversations would never have to leave the building at all.

I just thought Bruce's article was very well-written, and explains the issue clearly enough that people can understand it. If you are even remotely interested, take a few minutes and read the article.

The link again: http://perens.com/works/articles/MorganHill/


Bookmark Synchronization

I've been using a plug-in called Foxmarks to synchronize the bookmarks between the copies of Firefox on my various machines. Over the past month they have changed their name to Xmarks, and today they offered my browser an update which changes the name and adds... I'm not really sure what they're adding for me, but their big thing is cross-browser compatibility. Apparently they now have plug-ins for Safari and IE, so all three browsers can share bookmarks. I rarely use Safari and I never use IE, so it doesn't really interest me.

What concerns me is privacy, which I'm sure is no big surprise to those of you who know me. My bookmarks are MY business, and if I want to share them with somebody else, I will do so on my own terms.

Foxmarks came pre-configured to set up an account on the Foxmarks server, however they also had a way to store the synchronized bookmark database on your own server. Their web site used to make this feature very obvious. The new Xmarks plug-in still has this feature, however their new web site doesn't mention it at all- their big selling point now seems to be that when you do a search, it recommends other web sites based on how many other people have bookmarked that site.

The sudden shift in focus worries me. Instead of concentrating on providing a useful tool for their users, their primary focus now seems to be their "recommendation" service. It almost feels like a bait-and-switch, as if they've tricked everybody into donating their bookmark lists so they could build up this aggregate database of bookmarks, and are now changing their focus to try and monetize it- I'm guessing by selling the opportunity for advertisers to buy their way to the top of the bookmark recommendation list, regardless of how many people may or may not have recommended them. (Remember, people don't host services like this unless they expect to somehow make money off of it.)

Of course, the only way they could know what other people's bookmarks are, is by reading them from the bookmark files stored on their own servers... that much seems obvious. But I have to wonder, if they've been planning this change all along, if the plug-in hasn't been sending a copy of my bookmarks to them anyway, even though I haven't (knowingly) been using their server?

So I have already un-installed it from my desktop and laptop machines, and will be removing it from the other "sometimes they get used" machines (an old G5 iMac, the Windows and Linux portions of an Acer Aspire One, and the Linux machine on my desk at home) the next time I use Firefox on each one.

I have replaced Foxmarks/Xmarks with SyncPlaces, which does the same basic job but emphasizes privacy by NOT having their own server- basically they WANT you to host the sync'ed bookmarks on your own server somewhere.