Full life-cycle approach to RF radio software implementations

Directional "yagi" antennas force all energy in one direction creating a stronger radio signal
Directional “yagi” antennas force all energy in one direction creating a stronger radio signal

As covered in previous posts, modern day two-way radio systems run on software, and software applications require incremental updates to improve performance.  Those software updates are developed over time then implemented when fully tested and approved by the user community.  This approach is referred to as the full life-cycle of software development.  Long story short – servers, including repeater software, get upgraded which changes many things about a repeater.

You, the listener, will not know when a system is being upgraded unless the details happen to be published in the media for public record purposes.  The frustrating thing about software upgrades is that they’ll many times change scanning patterns which, in turn, breaks your scanner programming such as changing frequencies or narrowing broadcast bandwidth.  You may be wondering how you fix this problem which results in a tricky answer.

sdlcIf you are really bored, you can correct it by manually listening to each frequency in the system then find a way to track audible radio traffic which results in patterns.  Those patterns can be documented over time where you’ll find the newly programmed sequences to follow.  Most people are not that bored.  The easiest thing to do is wait until someone else has done all the research then download the latest updates from RadioReference.com.  Once updates are made to the website (as evidenced by the latest modified frequency dates), you can download the updates then reprogram your scanner.  The speed of updates depends on your voluntary scanning population since they will be the ones submitting those updates to RadioReference.

 

Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016 – RF Scanning 101

Because “Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016 – AND – where it’s completely different” was too long of a title.

I’ll start building off my previous post.  As a reminder, in 1990, your programmed RF Radio scanner looked like this:

Channel 1 – 460.025
Channel 2 – 460.050
Channel 3 – 460.075
Channel 4 – 460.100

Modern day radio towers are lower to the ground than 1990 radio towers.
Modern day radio towers are lower to the ground than 1990 radio towers.  There are also more of them.  1 radio tower in 1990 is usually split into 2 or 3 regional towers in modern day systems since the tx/rx of higher frequency radio waves require it.

Fast forward to 2016 where your receiving scanner (trunked under the hood) looks like this:

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050
Frequency 3 – 460.075
Frequency 4 – 460.100

Notice the addition of the computer, or control channel, in 2016.  Modern repeaters, known as digital infrastructure radio systems, are computer software driven.  To simplify the functionality, the computer (freq 1) is constantly listening to all computer programmed frequencies to see if someone wants to talk.  The computer knows who wants to talk by the pressing of the push-to-talk (PTT) button on the radio.

To better understand how the radio system functions, I’ll play out the following case scenario:

Freq 1:
Reminder, the computer is constantly waiting for someone to talk then temporarily assign them to one of the available freqs.  Freq 1 is listening on this system and is using freqs 2, 3, and 4 as available freqs.

Freq 2:
When Mayberry police officer 1 presses the talk button on her two-way radio, the control channel tells her portable radio to use the selected frequency (we’ll say freq 2 since nobody is using it).

Freq 3:
At the same moment freq 2 is assigned by the computer, Mayberry fireman 1 starts using his truck radio to call the dispatcher.  The computer searches then tells the fireman’s truck radio to use freq 3.

Freq 4:
Assume the officer on freq 2 is still talking but her partner is on a foot chase and presses a mayday emergency button on his portable radio.  The mayday signal (a HELP alert) is sent to the computer.  The computer is smart enough to override the police officer on freq 2 and tell the dispatcher that he (the officer now assigned to freq 4) needs help.  The computer is programmed to know the mayday call is a higher priority than regular communication so the dispatcher is now in direct communication with Mayberry officer 2 even though officer 1 was originally talking.

So this scenario is as follows before freq 4 in use:

pic credit: policemag.com
pic credit: policemag.com

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050 (Mayberry police officer 1)
Frequency 3 – 460.075 (Mayberry fireman 1)
Frequency 4 – 460.100 (available for use)

THEN, after Mayberry police offer 2 pushes the HELP emergency button:

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050 (Mayberry police officer 1)
Frequency 3 – 460.075 (Mayberry fireman 1)
Frequency 4 – 460.100 (Mayberry police officer 2 – HELP)

Isn’t this stuff great!

So we have learned that your scanner in 2016 can scan the exact same freqs as in 1990, but the modern scanner has morphed in functionality and is basically a mini-computer programmed through software to understand it should constantly listen to the radio tower computer (control channel).  The control channel computer does exactly what software programmers have told it to do, and your scanner is constantly listening to the control channel for the same reason – so the scanner will know what freq to choose and listen to at any moment.

Because this is all software driven, any changes to the system software may require you, the listener, to modify your scanner settings to match the system software.  You may also notice a delay in how fast your trunked scanner receives audio from the tower making it sound as if you joined the middle of a conversation.  That’s partly because scanners are searching wide ranges of freqs – they’re not tuned exactly to your local tower.  You can finely tune the programming of your local system since pre-programmed frequencies usually scan a full range (A – Z) rather than specific freqs (just G instead of A – Z).  But that’s getting a little too complex for this post since a site like RadioReference.com usually updates their frequencies by the time the listener realizes there is a problem.

Next RF Scanning 101 post > The control channel plays air traffic controller.

Scanning in 1990 – RF Scanner 101

Scanning in 1990 was so simple it involved 3 steps:

  1. Set scanner to manual
  2. Input desired frequency on the numeric keypad (such as 460.025)
  3.  Press the enter button to save the change
Old school Uniden BearCat 175XL
Old school Uniden BearCat 175XL

It really was that simple

… and still is that simple –  at least the fundamentals are that simple in 2016.

Every modern radio system is made up of frequencies and they’re just like the ones from 1990.  Notice the 460.025 frequency (aka: freq) in the adjacent image.  Assuming you’re located in a densely populated area, you could input that same freq in your scanner today and hear someone or something making noise because the same old freqs are still in use.  It was common in 1990 for 1 “agency” (think police precinct) to be assigned to 1 freq.  So here is what your scanning list looked like in 1990:

Channel 1 – 460.025
Channel 2 – 460.050
Channel 3 – 460.075
Channel 4 – 460.100

Most old school scanner functionality stopped here and left the translation up to you.  So you, the listener, had to know that Channel 1 was “Town Police Department”, Channel 2 was “Town Fire Department”, Channel 3 “Sheriff’s Department”, and on, and on.  This is where the simplicity of 2016 radio scanning changes.

Simple?  Then why is it so complicated to program modern scanners?

To de-complicate today’s scanning, I’ll build on the 3 simple steps from 1990 (presented above).  To make things more efficient, today’s radio systems (the term used for modern repeaters) share freqs with multiple agencies. So 1 freq (such as 460.025 MHz) may be used by 10 to 15 different agencies.  But these agencies don’t just share the 1 frequency – they share anywhere from 10 to 15 different frequencies.

policecall1990
Police Call 1990 (Old School) Edition. Police Call Radio Guide was the pre-internet RadioReference.com commonly sold at Radio Shack stores.

It’s time to stop talking and start playing so get that shiny new scanner out.  Use the RadioReference.com database to find your local police department freqs.  Just click here, choose your state from the map, then narrow down to your local county and city.  This will give you the freqs needed for your locale.

Next, use your scanner vendor website (such as Uniden.com) to find instructions so you can manually input 1 freq as a “conventional” type – as opposed to trunked systems.  Once entered, turn the volume up and listen for a few minutes to hear audible chatter.

That brings us up to the next RF Scanning 101 post – Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016.

Note: If you happen to hear sound similar to a machine gun while listening in conventional mode, that means you found the control channel.  The control channel is the software running the shared freqs on the repeater, but that detail will be explained in the next post.

RF Scanner 101 for 2016 – It’s Like Yesterday – Just More Complex

Most everyone has heard of RF radio scanners but probably through different terms like police scanner, fire radio, airplane pilot monitors, and even the newer terminology like digital trunk-trackers.  Maybe you came here looking to buy a new scanner and are confused since 1990 was the last time you touched a megaHertz receiving scanner.  I’m here to de-confuse the situation with RF Scanner 101.

…the fundamentals of scanning have not changed since 1990

pic credit: ebay.com
pic credit: ebay.com

First, find comfort knowing the fundamentals of scanning have not changed since 1990.  You’ll probably think I’m crazy if you’re sitting there trying to program a modern day scanner like the Uniden BCD-996-P2.  But it’s true.  Every RF radio system broadcasting today still uses a frequency (eg: 155.700 MHz) to transmit and receive.  Where it gets more complex is the introduction of software that drives these modern day transmitters.

I’ll take the next 5 blog posts to break down each element of scanning in 2016 so we can make sense of the last few decades of changes in scanning technology.  Here is what I’ll cover:

  1. Scanning in 1990
  2. Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016
  3. The control channel plays air traffic controller
  4. Full life-cycle approach to RF radio software implementations
  5. Digital encryption stops you from having fun
  6. Bonus: Enjoy scanning today since it won’t exist in the future

I agree – number 6 is a buzz kill. But we’ll learn how to use the technology while possible.  See you in the next post.

Gmail-Enable Your Private Email Address

gmailYou most likely have heard of viruses and malware, but I’ll summarize these terms as ‘digital contact’ as opposed to human contact.  In the real world, humans are exposed to sickness and viruses through contact with others; humans spreading germs through touch for example.  The computer world operates similarly which brings us to number 4 on the 2016 checklist.

The only way your digital device can be given a virus is through digital contact.  Email is one of the easiest ways electronic viruses spread, and transfer can occur by opening an unknown email or clicking an unverified link on the internet.  The simplest way to avoid viruses spreading through email is to let a service like Gmail take care of all the grunt work associated with virus protection.

Even if you have your own website name, you can sign up with Gmail for free and use their application to send and receive email.  Their 24/7 up-to-the-minute virus scanning filters will not let you receive viruses or malware which makes it well worth the free price tag.  You’ll simply be notified that an email was received but quarantined allowing you the choice of whether or not you should open it.

The only ‘gotcha’ for your free service is allowing Gmail computers to scan through your email for anonymous marketing purposes.  Assuming all the legal mumbo jumbo on their website is correct, their marketing scans do not divulge personal information to third party vendors.  I have nothing to hide in email so I say it’s well worth the free price tag.

Buy your business domain name (aka: your dot com name)

Registering your domain name is step 1 of 16 and it’s a must in our mobile driven world of commerce.  A lot of small business owners get hung up on finding a catchy domain name like the Googles and Yahoos of the world which can also be referred to as a dot-com name.  Don’t waste time here!  Name your business in the real world, find a domain name using a registrar (more details below), then come back later to find a more unique or catchy name if needed for marketing purposes.

What's in a domain name?  Your online credibility.  Pic Credit: TechTimes
What’s in a domain name? Your online credibility. Credit: TechTimes

Domain names are cheap compared to most business expenses.  Good deals can be found for just a few bucks or you can pay all the way up to 35 per year for a dot com.  There are new extensions that are costing crazy amounts of money, but stick with the dot com extension if possible since it will be the cadillac of domain names for years to come.

Make sure to keep the name simple when possible.  If your company name is named Kim’s Accounting, then buy kimsaccounting.com or kimsllc.com (LLC assuming you incorporated).  Your first point of interest is getting an initial website presence on the internet even if you’re still stuck in the planning stages of your new venture.  This web presence being online early allows search engines like Google some time to find and catalog your website.

Where should you get a domain name and what is a registrar?
Registrars lease domains to me and you so you can think of them as a wholesaler and you as the buyer.  There are many registrar choices so I say look at the most reputable first.  Keep in mind that registrar is the company that keeps ownership of your domain which means they ultimately control your web presence.  Choosing a reputable registrar is important.  Put your trust in a company that plays keep-away and they could steal your online name-brand.  I actually had this happen early on with the website registrar 1and1.com, but I let them keep the domain since I wasn’t using it anyway.  Also keep in mind that a downed-website can drive you insane if you don’t know what is keeping your website offline.  For that reason, you’ll want registrar customer service by phone or chat available 24/7 along with an organization that uses redundant servers that failover to backup servers if power outages occur. Lack of backups will result in your website going dead.

I will not promote one registrar over another since there are many good alternatives everywhere you look, but I can offer some tips based on my experience.

  1. Don’t register through a host
    A web host is a company that physically keeps your website files present on the internet.  This is technically a separate function from a registrar, but many hosts and registrars have started cross-promoting both services.  I have purchased a domain through a host before to get a free domain or whatever other promotion was enticing at the time, but I always recommend you transfer the domain to a large independent registrar as listed in step 2.  Why?  You are at risk for losing your domain if you forget to pay your hosting bills or even if your credit card expires without your knowledge.  Nobody cares what excuse you make cause they legally own your domain so make sure you don’t let that happen by using a registrar that is independent of your host.
  2. Choose a large registrar: GoDaddy, eNom, Network Solutions or Tucows
    Even registrars like NameCheap are resellers (for eNom in particular).  Whatever registrar you choose should be attached to these wholesaler names.  Not only are their names more reputable, but they can resolve issues with the large clearing houses due to their vast behind-the-scenes resources.
  3. Don’t lose your domain due to negligence
    Ever gotten your power or water cut off cause you forgot to pay your bills?  Domain names are no different.  Set calendar events to remind you to verify your domain contacts and always keep your registered owner email address valid.  If you forget to renew or pay for your annual domain renewal fee, the domain name will be lost or sold to someone else.  Make a point to stay current with your on-file credit card and email address so you don’t lose your domain name.  Domain contacts (the owners and controllers of the domain) are also required to verify a valid email address on a regular basis.  You are required to acknowledge these contact validations so ignoring them could result in loss of the domain even if you paid your bills.

I will note that there are loads of great companies out there.  When customers ask me for a one-stop-shop, I suggest GoDaddy.  It is very popular although more expensive than other registrars.  I stopped using them a while back due to their increasing costs, but I can’t speak well enough for their services and always-on customer friendly contact center.  They are probably the best choice if you want to be as hands-off as possible with your web presence.  You’ll benefit as a newbie with their cheap web hosting if you get a bundle deal (website, hosting, and registration) although remember what I said in step A above.  You’ll also benefit from their 24/7 telephone support.  They are very good at upselling other not-so-needed products so get ready to say no a lot.

Don’t see your question answered here?  Contact me for more details.

 

The Crucial RAM Effect

Is it time for a computer upgrade but you just don’t have the $1,500 to drop on a new super cool computer?  Upgrading your existing computer RAM can make a huge performance difference if your normal RAM usage is around the 75% mark.  That’s where the crucial effect comes in to play.

Not every computer allows RAM upgrades.  Even some that do allow RAM upgrades require you to replace the chips that are already in your computer while others let you add to present RAM.  Crucial.com makes the process of determining RAM needs very easy by installing their software which scans your system to determine what is installed!  Even better is the fact that Crucial lets you use their software to determine what is needed then you can go online and find the RAM somewhere else if you find a cheaper price.

taskmgrI have used Crucial many times.  Their prices are competitive and I have only bought RAM from other sites like Amazon or NewEgg when I found special deals.  No this is not an advertisement.  I actually like Crucial that much.

Not sure if you need RAM?  Assuming you are using Windows, right click the task bar then left click on “Start Task Manager”.  Left click on the Performance tab and watch your memory usage as highlighted in this screenshot.  You could benefit from more RAM if your memory stays above the 75% percent mark on a regular basis.

 

Trust – but verify – the cloud

I’m sure you have heard companies promoting “the cloud”.  If you run or manage a business, you have probably also wondered if you should move your data to the cloud.  There are three questions that must be answered by a vendor before you’ll have enough details to decide.

  1. Is data encrypted and secure both at rest and in transit?
    Securing a website address by using https:// is only step 1 of the equation because that same data sent through a website input form travels through many servers once submitted.  Every server and database touched needs to be secured.
  2. Does your vendor have redundant data centers?
    If your vendor runs their own servers, do they have a plan if those servers go down?  Many large vendors will have multiple server warehouses (better known as server farms) spread across the country.  If a server at one location goes down, a cloud based provider should be able to continue business at one of its other redundant data warehouses within minutes if not seconds.
  3. Can you continue business without access to your data?
    Put the worst case scenario in your mind when it comes to going without your data.  If you can’t take a revenue hit being offline for 30 minutes, then a cloud provider may not be for you. On the other hand, you may be okay if you can continue business on paper while you’re systems are offline.  Your paper downtime process will require someone to physically go back and enter data into your systems, but that may not matter to you as long as revenue keeps flowing.

The Details
securecloudKeep in mind that every business will have different requirements.  If you build reports and work out of your house, you can probably stand being out of commission for a few hours.  If you run a physical storefront, every minute of downtime means money lost.  Assuming you need to err on the side of caution and have little ability for downtime, let’s dive into exactly why these questions are so important with a real-life scenario comparison.

Humans get sick when they are exposed to viruses and bugs. Computers are no different. Most computer viruses are no harm until the user mistakenly opens a file that contains a virus.  Once exposed, viruses can create a nightmare. Cloud based systems, Google Gmail as an example, have been developed and made more user friendly over time even containing features that warn users when a virus is present.  Even though the virus is present on a server, Google systems are smart enough to quarantine the virus in a place where you can’t accidentally infect your computer.  These cloud based features can be deployed instantaneously compared to the early days when the user had to manually download updates.  Score one for the cloud using Gmail!

Similar protections are available in many cloud-based forms of software, but the most important fact is the Gmail features many of us have come to appreciate were developed based on user feedback.  The more users, the more accommodations for their preferences.  And the quicker the feedback of new problems (or viruses in this case), the quicker Google can update their software.  That means the previous days of discovering a virus, writing an antivirus update, then waiting for the user to update his or her software are gone.  Some users chose to ignore antivirus updates in the past which ensured a virus infection.  Cloud based vendors can now bypass the whole update process by going from discovery to deployment of required updates within minutes.

Why is the cloud more efficient for most small businesses?
Experts maintain cloud systems compared to Joe Schmoe who stops by a small business once a month to run software updates. And the truth is maintenance on servers can be a pain that most small businesses don’t want to waste time dealing with. In addition to software updates, the small business has to deal with hackers trying to hack their network when servers are run in house.  Network security in a massive cloud data center will be much more secure than most small businesses could ever compare.  And I almost forgot to mention that physical hardware can more easily be stolen from a small office compared to Pentagon-like security at huge data centers like Amazon or Google.

256bit_sslThe one caveat to trusting the cloud is trusting your cloud provider. They must be able to answer details of the following.  If the expert of the company avoid answering these questions, you might want to find somewhere else to do business:

Do they use the highest SSL or TLS for data in transit?
This is a techie way of saying protect your remote data in many ways. For instance, PayPal requires a minimum of SSL 3.0 or higher to use their site.  Your vendor shouldn’t take less than the PayPal standard since they’re required to work with most any PC in the world.  Most website users have become accustomed to making sure a website is secure if they input credit card information, but that same information could be insecure in other ways.  Lets say your website protects a credit card number by using a secure link (aka: the https:// standard protection).  That is great, but it doesn’t protect data once it leaves the website heading for the processing payment gateway.  We’ll refer to this as transfer of data as everything happening behind the scenes.  This is where you need a reputable company with staff that KNOWS THEIR STUFF.  The only way to know – do your own thorough investigation asking about your vendor’s credentials and how many staff they have devoted to security of data.
Do they encrypt data “at rest” in the database?
Your vendor may a secure website address (eg: https://www..), but that doesn’t mean the data stored in the database is secured or encrypted.  The “at rest” terminology just means the data has found its resting place and is not being transferred between servers or network equipment.

encrypt

What is your vendors action plan if they are attacked?
Depending on the nature of your business, your vendor shouldn’t tell you they plan on shutting down all their servers.  That may have to occur for a few minutes, but the majority of cloud vendors have ways of segmenting their network or trapping the hacker into one zone and continuing business throughout the rest of their network.

 If you are talking to the expert at your cloud provider and he/she cannot answer the above details, you might want to look at switching to another provider.  No answers doesn’t mean they’re a bad vendor, but it does mean your business will probably be offline for a while if the vendor is attacked.  Why?  No experience means that vendor will have to learn on the fly and you don’t have time for that.

Plan the backup for your backup

My earlier post made reference to planning a backup strategy for your business.  Every office has a different set needs and there are numerous solutions.  An office of one using one computer with pre-loaded software will have completely different needs from fifteen employees who share a server connected to cloud based business software.

sandisk_wireless_storageInternet backups (aka: cloud storage) which were referenced in the previous article are very convenient options, but downloading backups from the internet then restoring data after problems occur can become a massive headache even for the most experienced.  Add to that the fact that some remote storage solutions require a full backup be mailed on DVD instead of downloaded.  A business heavily reliant on minute-to-minute transactions cannot survive without on-demand backups.  That’s where local storage comes into play.

Local storage can be redefined as having your files immediately accessible.  There are loads of options although I’m only looking at two that cover the needs of almost every office.

  1. USB plug-and-play storage
  2. NAS or centralized network accessible storage

1 – USB plug-and-play Portable Storage

sandisk_128gb
SanDisk Ultra Fit USB 3.0

USB storage is the most flexible between the two since it can be used on the go.  Literally plug the drive in your device and you immediately have extra storage. The SanDisk storage device pictured is so small it appears as part of the computer when plugged into a portable laptop.  There is really no downside to USB storage unless you share data between a corporate environment and your personal network.  The only downside there is if the drive is encrypted since you won’t be able to copy personal un-encrypted files at home and vice-versa.

 

2 – NAS (Network Attached Storage) and wireless home media servers

Western Digital My Cloud EX2 NAS
Western Digital My Cloud EX2 NAS

The newer NAS storage available for home and business use was formerly so expensive corporate environments were the primary users since home users could never afford the drive space.  The difference between NAS and local USB storage is redundancy.  For one, the storage in a NAS uses it’s own separate device that is not dependent on a computer or server.  Also, the NAS drive space normally has it’s own backup drive where data is copied in real-time.  So if drive 1 of 2 fails, the device itself automatically looks at drive 2 and keeps on working.  A good visual is the WD My Cloud EX2 detailed on this page.  There are newer models that are similar to NAS called home media servers.  Just like NAS, they are their own devices that run independently of any computer, but usually cheaper home media servers don’t have a backup drive.  If the media server dies, the data could die with it.

The Backup

Once you choose a storage solution, you need to decide what should be backed up.  This is when you rely on the person or company that sold you software.  They should provide very detailed instructions on what drive names and files should be backed up from your device.  If you feel like they aren’t giving you all the details, then buy the extra drive space and back up your whole computer as described in this article for Windows devices.  My thought is that you can never have too many backups.