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Case Study #1: Applying Hardware Theory to the Noel Studio

 

Hardware theory defines the Noel Studio as an information system connected by its nodes and means of communication. While the system functions as a whole, its purpose is to serve a community of users and has no reason to exist without those users.

From this perspective, people serve as nodes in the network and communication occurs at different levels of accessibility. The primary nodes of the Noel Studio include those who work within its space and whose functions support the primary purpose of helping students improve their communication skills, including the director, two coordinators, administrative assistant, technology associate, consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows. Information is transferred among this group via a private network (intranet) of channels (buses) such as email, BlackBoard, a private Facebook group, and face-to-face communications.

Similar to extranet networks, certain information is also shared with related individuals include organizations who have a vested interest in the Noel Studio but whose primary functions do not contribute to the goals of the Noel Studio (collectively, the Noel Studio Advisory Board). These individuals and organization include the deans of University Programs and EKU Libraries, the co-directors of the Teaching and Learning Center, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Resaearch, the Provost’s Office, the Office of Information Technology, the departments of Communication and English, and Institutional Effectiveness.  Typically, this level of communication is transferred via group emails and monthly meetings.

Finally, information is dispersed to the public (the internet level) from the nodes of the Noel Studio via face-to-face communication, emails, and the Noel Studio website (studio.eku.edu). Recipients of this final output of communication are the users of the system—EKU students and faculty.

In addition to information being transmitted, received, and dispersed at different levels of access, we can consider how information is transformed for users in terms of back end and front end. Students request appointments with consultants or rooms through the Noel Studio’s online scheduling software, WCOnline while faculty members can request rooms and workshops through request forms on the Noel Studio’s website. On the back end, the coordinators and administrative assistant work as routers, distributing information to the location it needs to go, be it another administrator, desk consultants, or the three scheduling systems that coordinate reservations (Google, Outlook, and WCOnline).  The administrators and consultants then work together to plan the events that take place as a result of the back end work (including training and other meetings). The information is then redistributed to students and faculty in the front end form of consultations, reserved rooms, workshops, and events.

The direction that information travels in the network of the Noel Studio seems directly correlated with the agency of the different participants. While communication can be simultaneously multidirectional (like parallel buses), it also follow sa more hierarchical structure. . Communication is distributed both top-down and bottom-up, typically passing through the coordinators at all levels. Information and directives from EKU’s administration are communicated to the director. The director processes the information and channels directives to either or both of the coordinators. The coordinators then process and transfer information to consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows, prompting action on their part. Similarly, information that flows bottom-up originates with students or the EKU community, is passed on to the consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows, which is then transformed into suggestions or requests for action and communicated to the coordinators who then submit it to the director for approval. At times, information can (and does) flow directly from the director level to the consultant level and vice versa, but this only occurs when the director needs to communicate an official, formalized message or a consultant cannot find a coordinator and needs immediate assistance.

These communication paths define what Daniel identified as strong or weak ties. The strong ties occur between the director and administrative staff (especially the coordinators) and the coordinators and consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows. In contrast, the communication ties between the director and the consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows is often weak. The strength of the tie reflects the agency of the different participants in terms of decision-making and dialoguing about concerns.

In terms of growing, the Noel Studio as an information system evolves in two ways: 1)  staffing on a semester-to-semester basis (those privy to the intranet communications) and 2) the addition or subtraction of peripheral components that becomes programs of but do not function to support the primary goal of the Noel Studio (and have access to information on the extranet level). Examples of recent peripheral components include the Teaching and Learning Center, the Office of Undergraduate Research, and the Writing Fellows program. Much like hardware systems, the ability to expand and support additional components depends on funding.

Comparing the Noel Studio to hardware systems was actually more difficult than I expected. At first, I considered the space of the Noel Studio as the motherboard in which all of the components operated, which would maintain the analogy of “outside” programs and people operating as peripheral components. However, I found it really difficult to identify what would operate as the central processing unit (CPU). The most obvious choice, at first, seemed to be the director, but I realized that there is actually a lot of information that never reaches the director for processing. The coordinators seemed to be the next reasonable option for the CPU, considering how much information is collected, processed, and redistributed through them. However, considering any one participant as the CPU neglected the agency of the other participants who can choose which information to share or not with any other member of the network.

Thinking about the systems in terms of hardware not only forced me to try to think about what would serve as the “center” of the network, but I also felt forced to focus on only one level of the network–the level at which information is transferred–rather than all of the complexities of the system.


HowStuffWorks: Connectivity

This entry on connectivity has a starting point here for your handy reference.

Connectivity is at its core a discussion of how the actual connections between devices happen, in other words how does data get from A to B, C, D, E and back again? The groups of articles including some connections to things like High Speed Dial-up and the like, but this discussion will focus either on technologies that are present or are possible waves of the future.
Current Technologies

Modems

Photo Credit: BryanAlexander via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: BryanAlexander via Compfight cc

Ah, modems, without which you cannot connect to the internet unless you are somewhere that has a hardline (T1, T3) infrastructure.  Modem is actually a contraction of the word “modulator-demodulator.”  As you likely know, it sends data over phone, fiber optic, or cable lines.  The modulator end of things codes the data into a signal that works with whatever line you are utilizing. The demodulator turns the signal back into data. Wireless signals do this in the form of radio signals. Early modems used gradual degradation to test phone lines and ratchet their speeds back a notice if the line couldn’t handle the faster speeds. ADSL (or asymmetric digital subscriber lines) became popular in 1999 and were asymmetric because they sent data faster in one direction, taking advantage of dedicated copper wires used by the phone company. Current modem technology used by our ISPs (internet service providers) send packets of information between you and your ISP using PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol).

Cable Modems

Perhaps the most oft used in the U.S. for broadband connectivity, the cable modem is available over your coaxial cable that brings you hundreds of channels with nothing to watch. The coaxial cable is capable of carrying far more megahertz of signals than your cable provider currently uses for providing you with television programing. Thus, the extra signal space can be used to transfer data packets. Often the wiring prior to your household wiring is fiber optic, increasing the amount of carrying capacity available (depending upon where you live or it might be coaxial all the way down). The signal being send (downstream if into your home device) and received (upstream send from your device) require a cable modem on your end and a  Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) on the ISP end. Much like the old school dial up modems, cable modems have modulators and demodulators internally to handle encoding and decoding duties. They also include a turner which splits tv signal from data signal; a MAC which handles the interface with hardware and software bits of the internet protocols for handling the signals, the MAC is often connected with or integrated with a Central  Processing Unit (CPU) because the coding processes are relatively complex because of all of the splitting up of data, and finally there is the connection into the device (router or pc). How well your cable connection can provide data may depend upon how close you are to being the first user to connect through a particular assigned cable channel. Therefore, speeds may not be as advertised.

Fiber Optics are lovely,

Photo Credit: kainet via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: kainet via Compfight cc

optically pure glass that we talk about when we discuss cable or updated phone based connectivity. They are about a hair-width and are bundled by the hundreds or thousands. They have 3 basic parts – the core through which the light carrying the signal runs, the cladding which is an “outer optical (or mirror-like) material that reflects light back to the core, ” and a protective buffer coating.The fibers must be pure so that as the light bounces along between the core and the cladding, minimal degradation occurs. Fiber optic transmission systems include the transmitter (producer and sender of signals) the fiber itself, an optical regenerator (used to boost signals) and and optical receiver (which receives and decodes).  Advantages of this system are lower cost, smaller size, higher carrying capacity and less signal degradation than wire, lower power needs,  non-flammable, lightweight, and flexibility.

Satellite Internet

An option for those who live in rural areas who aren’t connected or have less than optimal connections to traditional communication infrastructures. It functions through a dish-to-dish broadcast. It is slower than either cable or fiberoptic connections. The satellite system sometimes requires you to have a modem to handle the coding work and like all satellite systems is susceptible to issues with signal loss due to poor weather conditions, improper placement, and interference from blocking structures.  A more full description and history can be found here.

Future

Powerline Based Broadband or BPL

This has a fascinating potential to reach far more people than fiber optic lines or cable lines because power lines are already a near-ubiquitous infrastructure already in place. Essentially using the same technologies power companies already use to monitor power grid function via radio frequencies, this technology would use similar frequencies to connect users to the internet. The frequencies would need to be shielded (as cable and fiberoptic lines are) because the fluctuating power current would cause disruptions. Developers claim that this has been dealt with. They have also created specialized silicon modems to separate out the data from the power current. Currently the technology is being vetted by the FCC, but both FEMA and ham radio operators have series questions about how this technology will be implemented. FEMA is working on a compromise with the FCC, but the ARRL (ham radio folks) believe that ham and shortwave radio will be greatly interfered with. So the technology is currently in bureaucratic limbo.

Also fascinating reading is the link on How an Interplanetary Internet might work. Check it out. It could be our future.

Why is this all so interesting? 

The above forms of physical hardware are the stuff of the interwebs. Without them data cannot be packaged, sent, and processed by our laptops, desktops, tablets, or phones. Understanding some of the basics also helps us ask questions about access. For example, the old 56.K baud modems that operated over phone lines were slow, granted, but as infrastructure they were significantly cheaper. Did they perpetuate greater access than expensive cable modems because they relied upon infrastructure that the U.S. Government helped put into place and backed decades ago?  What are the possibilities of internet satellite? People who argue against net neutrality point to them as ways of creating greater access but the subscription price per month is higher than cable, which is costly, and the reliability is questioned by some.

The choices we are able to make about modems, connection types, purchase/renting of hardware will affect our abilities to connect to the network.

 Bibliography

Brain, Marshall. “How Modems Work.” HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/modem1.htm> 21 Jan 2014.

Franklin, Curt. “How Cable Modems Work.” HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/cable-modem.htm> 20 Jan 2014.

Freundenrich, Craig. “How Fiber Optics Work.” How Stuff Works.com <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/fiber-optic.htm> 21 Jan 2014

“How does satellite Internet operate?.” HowStuffWorks.com <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/question606.htm> 20 Jan 2014.

Valdes, Robert. “How Broadband Over Powerlines Works.” HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/bpl.htm> 21 Jan 2014

How Stuff Works: Computer Networking

Well, since this entire class is about networking, I sure did get a doozy of a first topic to try to read, understand, and explain. It’s far too dense to fully get into, but I’ll give an overview, some key terms (here’s a link to a handy glossary), and an analogy. Let’s start with this short (3:27) video I found that does a nice job with the general idea.  Apparently it’s also trying to sell Netgear routers and switches, but the advertising isn’t too annoying:  How Computer Networks Connect and Work 

Next, if you have 13:01, you’ll really understand what happens inside the network by watching this video: How Packets Travel in the Network (3d animation) Plus, you’ll get to see a network visualized as a sort of campy sci-fi movie, starring “Router” as a very close cousin of an Imperial Probe Droid from Star Wars and “Switch” as a cackling Pinball Wizard. Look for the Windows 3.1 screen shot with the Netscape Browser — a blast from the past! Seriously, the video really does a great job with making this make sense for people who aren’t computer scientists. It’s also a good laugh for some of the rhetorical choices they made. Engineers. :-)

So, basically, a network consists of a MEDIUM (something that provides a path for the signals/information to travel, such as copper coaxial cable or fiber optic cable, which is preferred because it consists of a twisted pair of wires, one for sending, one for receiving), that is broken into SEGMENTS (also known as “collision domains”; a piece or instance of the medium) which contains one or more NODES or STATIONS, each with its own address. Information moving along the medium, is organized into FRAMES (like a sentence) which consist of PACKETS (like words). A network is governed by a PROTOCOL (rules for constructing the frames and organizing the information; TCP/IP is one protocol, Ethernet {or 802.3 IEEE} is another, token ring is a third, bitcoin is a new one). A network is subject to certain LIMITATIONS, such as the length of the cable, the number of devices, etc. SWITCHES connect nodes to a network segment and direct traffic to various nodes with it.  Using ALGORITHMS, a ROUTER acts as the boundary for a particular network, transferring information from one network to the next (or not, depending on the results of the algorithm). Routers talk to each other (using their own protocol), and can connect networks using different protocols (e.g. from ethernet to TCP/IP). Routers and switches (using their protocols) ensure that the information gets where it is intended and doesn’t have a COLLISION with other packets of information; routers attempt to LOAD BALANCE, much like packing a semi so that there is no wasted space and it doesn’t tip, a network is efficient when traffic moves smoothly, without a bottleneck or a single area working harder than another. The router constantly makes decisions in real-time to facilitate this balance. There exists the ability on any given network to send information from one node to only a single other node, or to send information from one node to ALL nodes (Broadcast). There are various ways to connect to a network, physically (via a cable — a WIRED network) or WIRELESSly (e.g. bluetooth) or a HYBRID, but even if the medium is not visible or known to each node or user, there exists a physicality to every network. You can have networks inside of another network (a LAN, inside a WAN, for example), and the INTER-Net is the connection of many networks that choose to be connected.

Once you’re on a network, you can do various things, such as share, and connect, and allow others to use your computer or your software applications (desktop sharing) or information. The concept of ownership and autonomy become problematized on a network. Someday soon, if Ubiquitous Networking is enacted, then any computer or device within range of you and your smartphone/PDA will become “yours” for as long as you need it. That paradigm shift may just break your brain. It won’t be YOUR brain or YOUR computer;  your autonomy and your hardware is part of the collective.

Phew. So here’s my analogy. See if this helps:

Imagine you are in a restaurant. This restaurant is a network of its own, defined by the boundaries of the restaurant. This restaurant network is part of a larger network of restaurants, but today, you are inside just this one. The floor of the restaurant is divided into sections, each one governed by a waiter (I’m using this word deliberately even though it is somewhat gendered, bc the word “server” is confusing in this context; however I intend the waiter to be gender neutral :-) who travels back and forth between each table and the kitchen. The waiter’s section is a network segment.  Inside each server’s section are individual tables, which we will call nodes. A node talks to a waiter, but not to other nodes (tables in the restaurant). The waiter is like the switch, s/he directs information from the nodes to a server (e.g. the kitchen, which serves up  packets, errr, plates, of food/information) and can talk to other waiters. The tables are connected through the waiters, but not directly to each other. The host/hostess is like the router, controlling who comes into the network (restaurant) and the flow of traffic to the various sections (network segments) and tables (nodes).  The host ensures that the guests are supposed to be there, are the right protocol (e.g. have a reservation, are wearing a shirt and shoes, or a tie as needed) and ensures that a single waiter (switch) isn’t given two or more tables in a row (overloading him/her) or causing a collision or logjam in the kitchen (at the server).  If everything runs smoothly, the correct food is made, on time, and delivered to the correct table, and all enjoy the food they ordered and have a positive experience with the network.

Does that help, any? Well, maybe it made you hungry.

So, your activity to help you think a bit about networking and the nested nature of them (networks inside of networks, connections between networks, communications across networks, the language of networks):

  1. Go to https://ifttt.com/
  2. Click Join IFTTT with whatever email and password suits you
  3. Browse the explanations on the site. IFTTT allows you to create Protocols for how to connect your own networks, and what actions should be taken. In effect, it acts as a router between your networks, according to the commands you give it.
  4. Create one or more “recipes” using the site’s graphical interface (for example, I created a recipe that sends me a text message every time a Job ad for an astronaut is posted on Craigslist in Charlottesville. No,  I don’t expect to get many texts. Think about which of your networks you might want to connect, when, how, and why. “Share” your recipe if you like.
  5. Then go to this Google Doc and answer the quick reflection question about your experience with IFTTT and how it relates to networking. Identify yourself before you type and put your text in its own color in order to differentiate. Comment on other peoples’ answers using the comment feature.

References:

How computer networks connect and work. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWTJKcg7Pj8&feature=youtube_gdata_player
How Packet Travels in Network ( 3D Animation ). (2012). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIuBmOufbls&feature=youtube_gdata_player
Networking Terms Glossary | Definitions of Network Technology. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2014, from http://www.wildpackets.com/resources/compendium/glossary_of_networking_terms
Pidgeon, Nick.  “How Ethernet Works”  01 April 2000.  HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/ethernet.htm>  19 January 2014.

Razavi, Roozbeh.  “How Routing Algorithms Work”  19 November 2002.  HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/routing-algorithm.htm>  18 January 2014.

Roos, Dave.  “How Desktop Sharing Works”  13 November 2007.  HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/how-desktop-sharing-works.htm>  18 January 2014.