Monthly Archives: January 2015

Virtualised CE – The Next Generation?

I’ve been doing more musing than usual recently on where I think technology evolution in the Network arena is heading over the next few years, and the concept of a Virtualised CE Router keeps popping in to my head.  This entire post is a bit of blue-sky thinking, but it’s not that far away from where we are today.

I think of the idea as a logical next step in the Hybridisation of Virtualisation and Network Function Virtualisation with that of Software Defined Networking.

Virtualisation has already taken over the Data centre, with VMWare and others having the capabilities to provide logically discrete Virtual Switching, Routing, and Firewall instances within the cloud infrastructure, so why not take it to the next step and start to consider Virtualisation for some of the additional services we might want to use?  Indeed the IETF has a draft considering exactly this for MPLS VPN’s.

Current WAN networks follow a fairly traditional delivery model in that the edge of the carrier network is terminated on to a local piece of Customer Premise Equipment (CPE), which in turn is connected to a “Customer Edge” (CE) device usually provided by the Network Operator.   Domestic DSL services follow a similar model.

My vision of a Virtual CE device fits both the conventional WAN solution, and in particular MPLS type deliveries, and a consumer grade DSL service.

Ethernet is increasingly becoming the bearer of choice for MPLS and Enterprise WAN services, either using Copper or Fibre, and terminating on an RJ-45 Ethernet port on the CPE.  Since this is literally an Ethernet service delivery, why not shift the “intelligence” back to the other end of the circuit?  Enabling the Service provider to virtualise the physical and provide a logical instance delivered from a shared hardware platform.  This reduces the equipment that could “go wrong” on a customer site, reducing (but not totally eliminating) the potential need for engineer visits, break/fix maintenance, and ultimately to save costs.  The carrier can also standardise the services that the customer takes, and capitalise on investment in centralised CE equipment.  It would still be possible to use tagged Ethernet to deliver traffic to different Networks/VLAN’s for the more sophisticated requirements, and doesn’t really change the scope for screwups which could cause traffic to be delivered in to the wrong logical networks due to mis-patching, (although I do know of a solution that might help there too! 🙂 )

Extending  this line of thought in to the Consumer market, I think that It has massive potential there too.  It may still be necessary to have an intelligent black box of a sort as a CPE to provide a Layer 2 connection back to the intelligence in the Virtualised CE environment, (using something like L2TP over DSL to the virtual CE router?).  Of course local WiFi breakout services will also still be required (Cisco already have the Meraki Cloud-managed Access Point range) but nevertheless similar benefits around centralisation, management, and economy of scale could apply.  Consumers could still manage their own CE device via a browser, but the carrier could have a far greater degree of influence/control over the make/model of CE device the customer uses enabling standardisation as well as opening the door to many more value-added services that the carrier could provide.  Some possibilities include:

  • Central, Redundant, Backed up Network Attached Storage
  • Media Centre/TV and related services (XBMC/Netflix/Plex/Sky Plus/Virgin TIVO etc)
  • Remote Access/VPN
  • Firewall & Security
  • Shared Access (Data Sharing, Gaming, etc)
  • Content Filtering

Taking those points in order:

Network Attached Storage:   How many high-tech families (read: geeks) have sophisticated home networks with Network Attached Storage capabilities, used to backup Photos/Music/Documents, or other locally stored Data?  This type of virtualisation could allow the carrier to provide (sell!) Exchange or Data-centre based NAS/SAN capacity.

Media Centre:  What about those people using Media Server(s) running on a NAS or dedicated server Hardware?  iTunes or Airplay servers to stream music to a SONOS or similar?   Centralised access to subscription based TV services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, or even inbound access to your Sky Plus or Virgin TIVO?  Local storage (maybe on NAS?) of your own movies using Plex or XMBC?

Remote Access/VPN: I can only predict this area will grow and grow.  I currently have the capability to establish a private VPN connection to my Home Network in order to access data stored on my NAS etc.  As the trend towards the “internet of things” accelerates, I predict that this trend will only increase over time as we access additional home based solutions including Lighting, Home Security, Central Heating, Electric/Gas meters, even Cookers and Freezers etc going forward.

Firewall & Security: We all hear about the latest and greatest zero-day exploit and such, wouldn’t it be great if we could sit back secure in the knowledge that our service provider was protecting us against these threats centrally.  Integrating this measure of control behind an easy to use UI to facilitate:

Shared Access: Already we find the younger generations gaming together within the same house on their respective games consoles with LAN enabled gaming, and of course MMORPG’s are extremely popular too! Why not have the neighbourhood kids playing Minecraft together on a private server that only they can get to?  This is about the ability to selectively extend parts of the Network between entities (on a selective and controlled basis of course).  Want to access that particular music track at home while you’re visiting a friend?  no problem!

Content Filtering: How about being able to deliver different levels of filtering, maybe to different Wifi SSID’s or LAN ports on the black box locally?  How about separate SSID’s for “Adults”, “Teenagers”, and “Children” each with differing levels of content filtering, maybe even logging applied.

And of course that’s before we start entertaining the ideas of Desktop-as-a-service, or the shift of compute workloads to the cloud.  I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before we shift the work behind our games consoles away from black boxes in the home, and just use a virtual-screen display type solution for it all! (nVidia SHIELD?)

I know that much of this can be done today, but it requires a particularly persistant technical person to make it all work, and even then it’s not yet as seamless as we’d all like!   I think that the idea of Virtualising the CE takes us a step towards my vision, and is a potentially lucrative area for the carriers to invesigate.

What do you think?

3½ Years already?

Amazingly, it’s been 3½ years since I wrote about the arrival of my Insignia, and it’s time for me to be ordering my next vehicle.  I’ve got a bit more of an interesting choice to make this time around, with some more luxurious vehicles in the running.

Realistically, the choice is between these:

  • BMW 320d EfficientDynamics (163Bhp)
  • Mercedes C220 CDI Bluetec SE (170Bhp)
  • Audi A4 2.0TDIe SE (136Bhp)

Or, I could drop back a band and choose from the following (and get a bit of cash back)

  • Vauxhall Insignia 2.0CDTi Tech Line (140Bhp)
  • Ford Mondeo 1.6TDCi Eco Titanium (115Bhp)

The Insignia/Mondeo option is a bit of a last resort if I can’t find one of the first three that I like;  I’m nervous about the Insignia because I currently drive a fully loaded “Elite” and know I’ll miss the whistles and bells if I drop down to the “Tech Line”.  The Mondeo I didn’t like when I test drove it 3½ years ago, and not sure the smaller engine would do it any favours!

So I’ve been out and tried all three of them on for size.

Given that I’m looking for the estate version to help carry around a certain daft greyhound, that means the Audi “Avant” model, the BMW “Tourer” model, or the Merc “Estate”.  I’ve been able to rule out the Audi already as I simply couldn’t fit in the drivers door.  It wasn’t even a question of my being on the large side;  I put the seat back as far as it would go and sat my posterior down on the seat, and promptly banged my head as I tried to get in.  My knees were around my chin trying, so I gave up pretty quickly!

I could fit quite comfortably in both the 3-series and the C220.  The 3-series felt rather dated inside, and the fit-out is nowhere near as nice as the C220, so I think I know where this is leading!

I’d like to retain the heated seats, and definitely have gotten used to having parking sensors at the front and rear, so I’m hoping I can upgrade the trim to the “Sport” version on the C220, even if that does mean it comes with a Satnav system which I don’t particularly want!

So it rather feels as though the decision is made already!

You Plexy Thing!

Late last year I purchased an Amazon Fire TV

I wanted it to facilitate my watching Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video without needing to turn on my Xbox, which was rather noisy and convoluted to get to the applications, not to mention a little noisier and clunkier than I would have chosen.

The Fire TV box looked to be ideal, and with the changes Amazon made to Prime in the latter half of the year, it became an easy decision.

What I didn’t count upon was discovering Plex and the Plex Media Server.

There is a Plex app which can be installed on the AFTV, which enables a connection via the Network to a Plex Media Server which can run on a PC (Windows, Linux or FreeBSD) or Mac, or if you’re fairly lucky, a NAS. My 3 year old QNAP NAS allows me to install it, but just doesn’t have the CPU or Memory to successful run the Media Server, let alone handle the Transcoding workloads it generates, so I might just have to consider a NAS upgrade in the future. In the meantime, running the PMS on a Windows Desktop PC and creating links to mapped drives containing the content that sits on the NAS seems to work well enough!

So then I started to dabble a bit in to creating the content to feed it. Now anyone that’s been to my place will know I’m something of a quality fiend, enjoying High Definition picture quality from Blu-ray, and 5.1 or higher surround sound, so I didn’t really want to loose any of that when streaming, but if I could achieve an acceptable balance of quality against size, it would mean that I didn’t have to keep reaching for physical media when I wanted to watch something, which would be fantastic!

After a fair bit of trial and error, and extensively searching t’interweb, I’ve settled on a two stage process. Firstly, I use MakeMKV to “Rip” a Blu-ray disc. This generates a lossless source copy of between 20-25gb (depending of course on the source). This is a legal action in the UK now since 1st June, assuming of course that you legitimately own the source media and aren’t ripping borrowed or loaned media. This follows the Hargreaves Review, see here and here for details. It takes me between 20 and 30 minutes to generate this source file on a fairly well specified (but two year old) Haswell i7 (3820) CPU. There is a trick to using MakeMKV, and that’s to make sure you choose the correct Soundtrack that you want to keep (eg English/DTS) and if you’re like me you’ll only want to rip the Movie itself, and not bother with the other extras on the Blu-ray disc.

I then take this rather large .mkv file, and run it through Handbrake, having set the video to an RF value of about 20 for Blu-ray source media, and in another 25-30 mins I’ll re-encode the .mkv in to an H.264 .mp4 file, which is usually between 6 and 10gb in size, depending on the length and quality of the source file, and would therefore allow me to store between 200 and 300 files on a 2Tb HDD.

Then it’s just a question of setting up Libraries on the Plex Media Server for the type of content. This isn’t difficult, but requires a little thought and planning. I created separate libraries for Film and TV Series’ because Plex allowed me to separate them. This makes sense given the Media Enrichment capabilities Plex has, where it will try and identify the media from the filename, and will then download from IMDB and/or elsewhere extra information about the cast/crew, posters and/or thumbnails etc and generally make it look very sexy on the screen. For TV programmes, it will allow drill-down by Series too, so you can choose Series -> Season -> Episode.

Plex Media Server

Above is the view you get from a PC or MAC running Google Chrome and browsing to the Plex Media Server.  The above shows all of the Movies I’ve got stored in my Library.

If I click on any of these, I’ll get a further display with details of the cast, crew, and a synopsis of the plot, all enriched with background images taken from the movie, and where Plex can find it, the theme music too.

The same process happens for TV programmes, with the added step of choosing a Season if possible too for the TV programme.

The User Interface from the AFTV itself is remarkably similar, with the same enrichment capabilities, and the whole process just works so very well.

In fact on the AFTV, it will also tell me the quality of the Video and Sound too!  If you look in the bottom/left of the photo below, you’ll see an example showing the 1080p, H.264 and dts 5.1 sound.

tv1

So, my project has become to further expand my library, and transfer as much of my blu-ray library on to Plex as I reasonably can.  This will doubtless take me years given the rate that I accumulate them, but I’ve already started doing this with “new” media as it lands, so I can watch it without media at my leisure.

One post per year?

Each year, I promise myself to make more regular entries on my blog, and every year I fail miserably. 2014 was no exception, with naught but a single public post in 2014.

I once regularly found things to talk about on a regular basis, although admittedly they were fairly trivial, but now it’s less so.

I’d like to think that it’s a side effect of the stage of life I find myself in; I’m now the wrong side of 40, and have been in a stable relationship for in excess of 3 years now. I guess many of the things that I might have blogged about have become the province of conversations with my other half. Much of the crap I’ve put up with in relationships before this is now a distant memory, and generally I can see those events in a completely different light now.

So, once again I will promise myself that I will try to make more regular comments here; indeed I’d like to think that people may read them, find them of interest and comment from time to time!

I’ve not lost my desire for undertaking little “projects”, so that might well provide some fodder for blog entries, time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ll just settle for wishing my friends and family a Happy New Year, and wish that for all of us, 2015 will be a better year than 2014 proved to be.