02 August 2010

That's All for Now

I've decided to stop pretending that I want, need, and am able to maintain a blog.

I only started this thing because I was told that, if I wanted to be published, I would need an Internet presence, the most important piece of which is a blog. Well, I'm a long way from being published. Just finding time to write every day is a challenge; finding time to maintain a blog is just an unnecessary distraction at this point. Therefore, this will be my final post for some time.

Thanks to those who followed me, and good luck with your own blogs.

10 June 2010

The Data Center: A Writer's Perspective (Part II)

Part II: The Heart of the Data Center

This is where all the servers are. My top-notch data center is built as a building within a building—both of them brick, several feet thick. The data center proper is on the bottom floor, below ground level. It would take a nearby nuclear detonation to harm the servers. After keying through another man-trap door system that separates the outer building from the inner one, you’re met by a technician who will show you to, and unlock, your company’s server rack.

Noise: The first thing you notice, upon entering, is the noise level. There are hundreds (or thousands) of servers and other equipment, all with humming power supplies and whirring fans, not to mention the whooshing of the air conditioning system. All of this combines into a constant white noise between 70 and 80 dB (a little quieter than a lawnmower [90 dB] but louder than a normal conversation [60 dB]). Contrary to what you might think, there is no beeping. Servers don’t beep as a matter of course, unless there is something very wrong.

Temperature: The next thing you notice is the temperature. Theoretically, it should be pretty cool (below 70°F) in a data center, but depending on the efficiency of the air-conditioning and the amount of equipment packed in there, it could get pretty warm.

The Plenum: The data center floor is generally one large room, although it could be subdivided into smaller spaces, and most contain caged-off areas for companies who rent multiple server cabinets. A server cabinet is a box (usually black), about 7 feet high, by 20 inches wide, by 2.5 feet deep. It has locking doors on the front and the back; usually these are perforated to allow air-flow. On the data center floor, server cabinets are arranged side-by-side in long rows. The effect is similar to a convenience store with narrow aisles and tall shelves.

The floor of most data centers is raised to allow for cables to run beneath. The floor is very solid, but consists of 2-foot-square steel or aluminum tiles (usually with a white linoleum surface coating). Any of the tiles can be lifted away by using a tool that looks like a handle attached to two suction cups. The plenum (the space between the raised floor and the sub-floor) is usually around three feet in height, though it could be as low as 1 foot. The larger the data center, the higher the raised flooring. (This is due to the fact that the chilled air is circulated in through the plenum.)

The plenum in a top-notch data center will be mostly empty (and clean). Cables will be run in neat chases, leaving plenty of room for the air to circulate (or someone to crawl around). I have seen a private data center, however, where it looked like someone dumped a giant’s pot of spaghetti down there.

Lower-end data centers might not have raised flooring. In this case, cables will be run in chases overhead.
The technicians who monitor everything work mainly in a Network Operation Center (NOC). This is a separate room—usually looking out onto the data center floor, with computers and monitors. It’s much quieter in there.

Now What?: If you’re there for legitimate purposes, you do your thing and then leave. Assuming a criminal gained entry into a data center and onto the floor, what could he do? Well, not much. First of all, there are (or should be) cameras covering the data center floor. Unless a big company is bringing in a lot of new equipment, there are generally less than three or four non-employees in the building at any given time. Guards or techs would notice someone in an area where no one is supposed to be. Remember, the lights never go out. It’s always someone’s workday in the data center.

The server cabinets are locked, and some are even surrounded by metal cages. Granted, the locks are not particularly secure, but, again, someone would notice a person trying to pick the lock of a server cabinet.

The best place a criminal could get would be into the plenum, beneath the raised floor. From here, they would have access to the entire data center. The bottoms of server cabinets are open. It is conceivable that someone could drill or cut up through the floor tile, and into a server cabinet. From there, they might be able to access network cables, network ports on servers and switches, or keyboard/monitor/mouse ports on servers. Generally, the equipment is in there pretty tight though, so access to anything but the bottom-most piece of equipment would be difficult at best. Also, don’t think about stealing equipment that way. Everything is screwed into vertical rails, and there’s no way to unscrew it without opening up the doors.

This ends our tour of the data center. To get out, please go to the lobby and return your keycard to the guard. He probably won’t be the same guard you checked in with, and he won’t ask for any ID.

If you have any questions, please wait until we’re off the datacenter floor, so we don’t have to shout.
Have your own data center experiences that differ from mine? Feel free to share.

09 June 2010

The Data Center: A Writer's Perspective (Part I)

Part I: Getting In

My job as an IT (Information Technology) consultant affords me some unique opportunities. For instance, the other day, I had to go to a hosted data center to install some servers for a customer. I realized that the inside of a data center is something that most people may never see, so I thought I would give some description that might be useful to writers—or potential criminals. (Funny how the interests of those two segments of society often overlap.)

First of all, what is a data center? Fundamentally, it’s a big room, filled with servers. (If you’re asking at this point, “What is a server?” you probably aren’t going to write about a data center, and you can skip the rest of this article.)  In today’s online world, data centers are the physical repository of enormous amounts of very valuable data.

In a smaller company, the area where the server or servers are located is usually called a server room, and lacks much of the sophistication that makes a true data center. A large company may have one or more data centers within their office buildings; this is a private data center. Most data centers, however, hold more than one company’s servers. These are known as hosted data centers or co-location spaces. Data Centers (private or hosted) are also called server farms. Size-wise, they are measured in thousands of square feet.

A hosted data center is a facility where many different smaller organizations keep their servers. The hosting company provides (at a minimum) physical security, power, cooling, rack-space (more on that later), Internet connection, fire suppression, and physical access when necessary. The differences between hosted and private data centers are minimal, although specifics of each can vary widely. I will focus mostly on hosted data centers in this article, and I will compare one that is top-of-the-line with another that is less so.

External environment: Data Centers are generally located in industrial parks. They are often nondescript buildings with few windows. A top-notch data center will be isolated from other buildings (to prevent fire or flood in another office from spreading to the data center) and will be often isolated from its own parking lot (to prevent people from driving cars into the building in order to force entry). A less-secure data center may lease space in a larger building. The top-notch data center I visited the other day has a thirty-yard path from the parking lot to the main entrance, which snakes through a lovely patch of natural foliage. Another data center I know of simply has a couple of bollards outside the front door, which opens into the parking lot.

Gaining Entry (Through the Front Door): A very secure data center will have a single point of entry. The one with which I am familiar has a “man-trap” (air-lock style) double door system at the front. You enter through the first glass door into a small entryway. Through the second glass door, you can see the guard desk. A guard must buzz you in before you can enter the second door. (I presume the outer door must be closed before the inner one will open, but I’m not sure.) The guard desk is located in a lobby area, with comfortable chairs, fake flowers and marketing flyers. Without authorization, that’s as far as you can go. There isn’t even a bathroom in the lobby. There’s no way to get out of the guards’ sight other than to leave the building.

Behind the guard desk is a glass wall. Behind that, is a hallway that connects to the rest of the building. You get in only if you have been pre-authorized by a company that rents space in the data center. (The customer can do this through a secure Web site or by calling the data center support number.) You give the guard some ID (driver’s license) tell them which company you’re with, then fill out a form stating why you’re there (to install a server, perform maintenance, etc.). Once they confirm you are authorized to be there, they give you a credit-card-sized RFID badge and let you in the door.

If you’ve never been there before, someone may show you to the data center floor. Otherwise, you’re free to get there on your own. The top-notch data center where I have been has a kitchenette and restrooms down the hall from the main entrance. This is for the convenience of the employees and also for the customers and contractors, who may be there for many hours, on successive days. This is as good a place as any to mention that a data center operates 24x7. A contractor may need to get in at any time to replace a failed hard drive, or some other such task.

Lower-end data centers may have a less-formal entry procedure, and may rely on on-site technicians instead of guards to authorize entry.

Gaining Entry (Through the Back Door): Data Centers are full of big equipment (battery arrays, server cabinets, etc.) and none of it comes in through the front door. That’s why there is a loading dock. The top-notch data center I’m referencing has surprisingly lax security at the loading dock.

Obviously, one can drive right up to the loading dock, or it wouldn’t be of much use. Technically, anyone who enters through the loading dock is supposed to have signed in at the front desk, but, as long as one person goes in through the front, it wouldn’t be tough to have someone drive around and meet you at the back to help you unload. I’m pretty sure that the data center employees are supposed to stay in the loading dock area as long as anyone else is there, but there are no guards. Movement between the shipping area (just inside the loading dock) and the rest of the building is restricted by key card.

Employees: Before I move on to the heart of the data center, I would like to make a note about the employees. Hosted data centers are companies, just like any other. Single-site data centers (and private data centers) will have offices for marketing and sales and purchasing and all the other people who make a company run. Other data centers have multiple sites around the country or the world. These sites will typically have only guards and technicians. The guards have an extremely boring job. (I asked one.) Very little happens, other than the sporadic checking in of customers and employees. Since almost everything can be done remotely, customer visits are infrequent. The guards may or may not be armed. And, they may or may not be friendly.

The other employees are technicians. They are responsible for monitoring and responding to problems with temperature or Internet connections, or other services the data center provides. They will also act as “hot-hands” to physically reset a piece of equipment for a customer, so the customer doesn’t have to travel on-site just to power-cycle a switch. These guys are hard-core IT geeks. They are denizens of the data center—territorial and lacking in social skills. OK, not all of them, but most of the ones I’ve met are.

Stay tuned for Part II, The Heart of the Data Center.

16 May 2010

Tell Me What to Read

On a lark, I decided to catalog the books in my collection that I have never read (or read so long ago that I forget what they're about).

Here's where you come in: I'll list the books, and you tell me which one I should read next. I might take the one that gets the most votes, or I might go for the best justification. We shall see.

Oh, also, stay tuned for the next two in my series of Dusty Book Reviews: Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling, and Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.

And--just because this drives me batty--a link to Grammar Girl's discussion of the phrase "on accident."

Here's the list--in order of publication date:

TitleAuthorYear of Pubilcation
HameltWilliam Shakespeare1600
The Story of the GadsbysRudyard Kipling1888
Under the DeodarsRudyard Kipling1888
Mine Own PeopleRudyard Kipling1899
Anne of Green GablesL. M. Montgomery1908
Cloud HoweLewis Grassic Gibbon1933
Grey GraniteLewis Grassic Gibbon1934
Of Mice and MenJohn Steinbeck1937
From Russia with LoveIan Flemming1957
The Dragon and the RoseDavid Scott Daniell1957
South by Java HeadAlistair McLean1957
The Guns of NavaroneAlistair McLean1957
The Secret WaysAlistair McLean1959
ThunderballIan Flemming1961
Fear is the KeyAlistair McLean1961
The Golden RendezvousAlistair McLean1962
On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceIan Flemming1963
You Only Live TwiceIan Flemming1964
Puppet on a ChainAlistair McLean1969
CircusAlistair McLean1975
The Golden GateAlistair McLean1976
Noble HouseJames Clavell1981
PartisansAlistair McLean1982
San AndreasAlistair McLean1984
License to KillJohn Gardner1989
The Ring of CharonRoger MacBride Allen1990
Sophie's WorldJostein Gardner1991
The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour - The Frontier Stories - Volume ThreeLouis L'Amour2008

30 April 2010

Yea vs. Yeah vs. Yay

Yea1 -- an expression of excitement, synonymous with (and rhymes with) hooray; e.g. Yay! My book just got accepted! Isn't that great.

Yea2 -- an archaic form of "yes"; e.g. So, shall we celebrate? Yea or nay?

Yeah -- an expression of agreement; nothing rhymes with it, but it is commonly used in the expression "Hell, yeah!"; e.g. Yeah. Let's go.

Yay -- a (seemingly accepted) misspelling of Yea1;

If you're going to use them, get them right.
That is all.

15 March 2010

Confessions of a New Englander

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. For some reason, known only to God, I still live here. 

Outside New York, Massachusetts is the least-friendly state in the union. Even New York should get special dispensation because of the tiny, yet dense, anomaly called New York City, which pulls down the average of an otherwise genteel state.

New England is separated from the rest of civilization by the aforementioned New York state to the south and west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and an impenetrable barrier of snow, ice and logging roads to the north (otherwise known as Northern Maine).

Outsiders sometimes think New Englanders are rude. We’re not—not intentionally, anyway. We just have different customs than the rest of the world. For instance, we don’t talk to strangers unless we absolutely have to. Fromawayers (non-natives) take this as being standoffish, but it’s really more about efficiency in communication. We tend to speak in our own localized dialects, referencing people and places no one but we have ever heard of. If I recognize that you’re not from around here, I’ll simply avoid conversation altogether rather than having to be the one to teach you what a “packie” is, why there’s no lake anywhere near “The Lake,” where “The County” is, or how to pronounce Worcester, Gloucester, or Leicester.

Like Mr. Ed, we never speak unless we have something to say—even with people we know. In other places in the world, if two neighbors walk out the front doors of their homes at the same time, they’ll probably walk toward each other and strike up a conversation. Not so in New England. Most of us are smart enough to look out the front window first, and only step out the door, when no one is looking. If we forget, and happen to see a neighbor out of the corner of our eye, we simply look the other way, as if we didn’t notice the neighbor standing there. It’s OK though, because he’s doing the same thing. All weekend you can see folks walking sideways from their front doors to their cars, fumbling with their keys a little too much, and never quite looking in the direction they’re going.

We go through this act, with our downturned eyes and sideways walks, so we don’t have to feel guilty about not talking to the neighbors. It’s not that we don’t like them (in most cases). We’re just in a hurry. If we weren’t supposed to be somewhere else five minutes ago, we wouldn’t be leaving the house yet.

Sometimes neighborly avoidance is less benign. A New Englander will go out of his way to avoid a neighbor—for years—rather than tell her that her pink, plastic flamingo lawn ornaments are an eyesore. Instead, we’ll just stare at those hideous birds and seethe. We're seethers. We'd rather have a root canal than confront a fellow human being—at least one we have to see again. And we let all this seething bile build up inside us. God protect the unlucky soul who opens that door. Get a New Englander angry and it’s as if the gates of Hell itself were opened wide. The pent-up anger from everything, from the neighbor’s pink flamingos, to the boss promoting his nephew, to the guy who gave you the wrong order at the McDonalds drive-thru, comes shooting out like the flames of a verbal blast-furnace. We tend to reserve these tirades for people who can’t retaliate, like out-of-state drivers or spouses.

New Englanders are fiercely independent—at least we like to pretend we are. We’re reluctant to ask for help with anything. Not only is it a sign of the asker's weakness, it's an affront to the askee. You see, we're all so busy all the time, that every second is a valuable commodity. We’d rather give a major organ than an hour of our time. This is the thought process that leads most of our politicians to look at a problem and decide it’s better to “throw money at it” than take the time to solve it. In New England, where we have more money than time, it’s always easier to spend money—especially when it’s someone else’s.

08 February 2010

My Post-Super-Bowl Blog Post

Everything that could possibly be said about the Super Bowl--as a football game, or as a national entertainment spectacle--is being said a hundred times over, elsewhere.

06 February 2010

My Quest to Learn English All Over Again

As a writer, and aspiring author, I should have an excellent grasp of English grammar. Right? I mean, I'm an umpteenth-generation American. I grew up speaking and writing the language. I ought to be fairly expert in its usage.

Unfortunately, that's just not true. I like to think I get most of it right, but it seems to occur more by intuition than by understanding. (For instance, did I need that last by? It read better that way, but I don't know why.)

Before I began writing fiction in earnest, I couldn't tell you the difference between a predicate, a pluperfect, or a past participle. (Did I need that last comma?) I still have trouble recognizing various parts of speech and remembering their proper names, but I'm getting better. The more I try to learn, however, the more I find that the rules aren't always universally agreed upon. (Ended that sentence with a preposition, didn't I? Is that wrong? Depends on who you ask.) There's no central authority for English. Even well-respected manuals of style contradict each other, and have agreed to politely disagree on certain points. (Did you catch the split infinitive?)

I've just about given up searching the Web for grammar advice. It's fairly impossible to determine which sites' authors have correct information and which are as clueless as me. For example, I ran across this little gem this morning (on a site that will remain nameless) when I did a Google search for "grammar for fiction writers". (I know. I know. The punctuation goes inside the quotes, but that's just so illogical. My search didn't include the period.) Ahem. Anyway, here's the quote:

Fiction which lacks punctuation, randomly changes tenses, misuses pronouns, lacks proper capitalization, and is littered with sentence fragments is very difficult to read.

So is non-fiction that contains improper word usage. Come on. Microsoft Word has corrected me so many times on the difference between that and which that even I know the difference now. If I can't trust a post about grammar to be grammatically correct, who can I trust?

Some would say, "Grammarians be damned! As long as the reader understands what you're saying, you've written it correctly." Others aren't happy until every comma is accounted for, and every sentenced is polished to grammatical perfection. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. How about you?

01 February 2010

The Best Show on Television, and, More Importantly, Why

"Smart." "Sophisticated." "Classy." Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
There are a lot of good adjectives that can, and have been used to describe USA Network's "White Collar". The same though, can, and has been said for many shows. What puts this show above the pack is great writing.

I'm not just talking about the clever repartee of the dialog; I'm referring to the way each episode (and the overall story arc) is plotted to lure the viewers in and keep them interested right to the end.

The best way to keep viewers--or readers--involved in a story is to keep them asking questions. In fact, any story can be outlined as a series of questions that the reader--or viewer--wants to have answered. Keeping the audience absorbed in a story is all about keeping them focussed on the questions: "Will he escape?" "Who is the mystery woman?" "Why did he do that?" "What's her angle?" When one question is answered, another should immediately follow. Better yet, the answer to one question should generate another question.

Each scene should be focussed on one of the story's questions. The minute the audience forgets the current question, or loses interest in the answer, or figures out the answer prematurely, you've lost them.

30 January 2010

I Wonder... ?

Sentences that begin with "I wonder," are not questions!

Wrong: I wonder what tomorrow will bring? (Are you responding to someone who just informed you that you're wondering about tomorrow?)

Right: I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

That is all.

25 January 2010

Win an eReader from the Bibliophilic Book Blog

I want an eReader. Preferably a B&N Nook. I don't want it bad enough to save up the money and buy it though, so I'm trying to win one by entering online contests. Needlessly complicated and time-consuming? Yep, but that's me.
It might be you too.
Check out THIS PAGE for your chance to win a Nook, a Kindle, a Sony Touch, or a Sony Pocket. Or, if you're not into that, how about $150.00 gift card to the bookstore of your choice instead?

19 January 2010

Hello, World!

From the day my dad brought home our first family computer, I tried to learn how to control it--how to turn my ideas into keystrokes, and from there, into output, a hybrid of my own knowledge and imagination, and the power of the computer.

To an adolescent boy, nothing is more enticing than control. To a nascent writer, mastery of an invisible world (along with a means of sharing glimpses of that world with others) is like a dream come true.

The first example in any book (these were pre-Internet days) about any programming language is the code necessary to print some text on the screen. Invariably, the illustration text is the simple phrase, "Hello, world!" (Actually, they usually leave out the comma, but that's another rant for another post.) So, I thought it appropriate to title this inaugural post the same.

Where this blog takes me, or if anyone cares, remains to be seen. Until then... Hello, world!