I have been spending time this week at a small media company called Mercury Labs. Despite their name, they don’t normally test anything, but ironically that is what I have been doing there. I was testing a bunch of integrated network security devices for Network World. These devices cover what is called unified threat management, but you can think of them as network firewalls with additional features, such as the ability to scan incoming and outgoing traffic for viruses and spam, blocking phishing URLs, and being able to set up a secure virtual private network connection when you are on the road. I’ll call them advanced firewalls here for convenience.
I have a long history of testing these tools. Almost seven years ago, one of the Techtarget publications had me looking at them for larger enterprises, and I went out to the central IT department at Stanford University to put them through their paces. This time round, I wanted to find a small business site for the tests that I was going to be doing for Network World. That’s why I was over at Mercury this past week.
They have about 10 Macs connected to an Apple Airport, which is the center of their network, providing IP addresses, wireless connections and a shared hard drive to the entire office. The Airport is attached to a cable modem and the Charter broadband network.
Wait a minute. Don’t you need a firewall if you are going to connect your network to the badass Internet? Yes, and Mercury knew they were taking chances. A firewall is just the basic separation that keeps the bad guys from getting inside your network and causing havoc. That is why they were the perfect testing site.
They were vested in my review and what I would find out about these products and their specific needs. Interestingly, it isn’t just small businesses that don’t have firewalls. When I arrived at Stanford, the central network didn’t have any either. Partly that was because of some odd notion of academic freedom, but back then they realized they had to get better protection. Ironically, while I was doing my tests there, we saw someone try to reach out from Germany one morning. Luckily, they had other defenses that prevented them from doing any damage, but it emphasized the reason why I was there testing these products. And coincidentally, when we brought up the advanced firewalls at Mercury, we could see all the network traffic where folks were continually scanning and looking for ways to enter their network too. It was a sobering illustration of why these products are essential.
When I first arrived on scene, I went into their phone closet where I tried to suppress a gasp. Yep, this was your typical small business: part storage room, part cable jungle, and mostly a mess. It was clear that trying to figure out the network topology was going to be a challenge, and my first act was to leave everything alone.
Inside the closet were two small gigabit switches from DLink that looked like they had been around since the days of DOS. This worried me, but since things were working, I wasn’t too concerned. Yet. One of the vendors that were part of the test insisted on sending a product engineer to help with my testing, and I am sure glad that he was there. When we cut over to his device instead of the Airport, things initially went south. Turns out we found a bug in their firmware. Once that was fixed, all of the wireless Macs were quickly brought up on the network behind the new firewall. But the wired Macs had trouble connecting. It took a few reboots later before we got everyone back on board. It was ironic that the wireless portion of their network was easier to bring up than their wired portion. That was thanks to the wonky cabling in the closet.
So what are some takeaways from this experience?
If you are running gigabit Ethernet to your desktops, make sure your cable plant is up to snuff. Part of my problems had to do with the older cables used to connect things in their wiring closet. There is a difference between Cat5 and Cat5e, especially if you want to run the faster networks these days. Make sure you are using the right cables.
Disconnect any unused wired ports in your office. This is just basic security practice, but bears repeating. And if your wiring contractor hasn’t done so, you should label your ports in the walls and in your closet so you can track things down more easily.
Understand the limitations of your core network gear, including switches, routers, firewalls, and wireless access devices. Your network installer should explain these things in terms that you can understand.
Have a separate guest network with the appropriate security measures. The Mercury folks were using the Airport guest network features, which were bare bones. One of the reasons they wanted to go to the advanced firewall was to provide better protection from their frequent guests and contractors who were going to be connecting in their offices.
Oh, and what happened with my review for Network World? Well, you will have to wait and read about it in their pages. I can tell you that I learned some interesting things about all the products that I tested.
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If you whipped Google Docs, Facebook Messenger, and OneNote around in a blender, the resulting concoction would look something like Kolab, a new Canadian startup that is vying to become the ultimate social collaboration platform for students.
Kolab offers a solution for any student that has become sick and tired of switching between Microsoft Word, Facebook, OneNote, and email. It offers real-time collaborative document editing, Facebook chat integration, video chat, and audio recording for lectures amongst its laundry list of features.
Of course, there are plenty of other players in the land of education startups. Wiggio and Edmodo are two startups that we’ve covered here on TechCrunch that boast similar features, and are tailored specifically for student use.
So what differentiates Kolab from the rest of the pack?
Kolab granted me access to their beta last week, and I’ve been diligently putting it through the paces. There are a lot of interesting ideas there, but it’s safe to say that there are a few bugs Kolab will have to iron out before it’s fully ready for primetime.
While Wiggio’s interface isn’t cluttered by any means, Kolab’s interface is a true exercise in minimalism. Once you sign in by granting Kolab access to your Facebook account (that’s the only way you can for now), you’re greeted with a stark homepage with nothing but a few graphics that display Kolab’s flat design aesthetic.
Instead of files and folders, Kolab organizes things into lockers, binders, and squares. Your “locker” basically serves as your Kolab homepage, and it’s where you have access to all of your classes and documents.
Each class is represented by a big square called a “binder”, while each of your documents within that binder is represented by a smaller square called… a “square”. You’re also forced to assign each binder a distinct color, as to help differentiate between classes.
In the bottom corner you can pop open a Facebook chat window, which lets you message any of your friends regardless of whether they’re Kolab users or not. You can also instant message and video chat with Kolab users as well.
Kolab seems to take a lot of cues from Microsoft’s “Metro” interface, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s certainly pretty to look at, but sometimes it falls through the same shortcomings Windows 8 has where a simple function like turning your computer off is buried under an unintuitive series of gestures and clicks. For example, you have to go through five steps to delete a square, which is puzzling.
Also puzzling is the fact that Kolab limits binder names to seven characters, which caused a lot of forced brain crunching as I struggled to come up with shortened names for the imaginary classes I was taking.
Inside a square is a word processing interface that vaguely resembles what Word might look like if Microsoft ever got around to making a truly tablet-optimized version for Windows 8. Kolab calls this the kZone (the k is for kollaboration).
The creator of the square, also known as the “square master”, can invite up to 8 of their fellow Kolab users to collaborate on the project. Each member of the square is randomly assigned a distinct color, a la Google Docs, and each user’s work inside the square is color coded as well.
Once you begin typing inside kZone, it locks you into that particular paragraph, preventing from other active members of the square from jumping in and interfering with your typing. It’s a simple safeguard against typical teenage trollish behavior.
There are plenty of other features that Kolab that brings it to parity with Google Docs. You can print from the square itself, send public and private links for other Kolab users to view and edit, and export the entire square as a PDF or Word Document.
Kolab also has a dedicated note taking zone. Each of the binders you’ve created for your classes becomes its own notebook, where you can label and organize your notes by topic and subtopics.
The most outstanding feature here is something called syncNote, which syncs up your notes in real-time with an audio recording of the lecture. If you’re reviewing your notes and it all sounds like caffeine-induced gibberish, you can playback the audio of the lecture and watch yourself typing in real-time to get a better picture of what you meant.
In future iterations of Kolab, you’ll be able to assign each square a due date, and a little countdown clock will appear letting you know how much time you have left to pull that all-nighter with your group mates. There’s also an upcoming feature called Mentor Access where you’ll be able to send a specially formatted version of a square to your teacher, where he or she will be able to view the work you’ve done and send it back with their comments.
Kolab also promises full Wolfram Alpha integration in the future, where you’ll be able to search directly inside a kZone and copy the results you get into the document.
The version of the site that will be available today is the free “Discovery” edition, that gives users 10 hours of syncNote audio, and the ability to create up to 15 squares.
Kolab will be running out their paid plans for their site soon, which have three tiers. The “Student” edition costs $5 a month, and gives users 100 hours of syncNote audio and the ability to create 35 squares. The “Expert” edition costs $10 a month, with unlimited hours of syncNote audio and 65 squares. The “Master” edition costs $15 a month, with unlimited hours of syncNote audio and 100 squares.
There’s just something about Kolab that makes it a lot more fun to use than something like Wiggio. Yes, it’s true that Wiggio has a more rounded complement of features, but its interface just stinks of cold professionalism. It’s something a student would use because they have to.
On the other hand, Kolab has a friendly interface that is simple enough for anyone to understand. Binders are classes, squares are documents. Got it. Kolab’s bright color schemes, sliding animations, and Facebook integration are just itching to make the all nighter before a school group project an experience that isn’t just less chaotic, but also a little enjoyable as well.
But there are bugs to be killed. Facebook chat at times freaked and would show me a blank list of users. When I tried to copy and paste a large block of text into a square, it locked up and wouldn’t let me edit anything at all. And although this isn’t much of a bug, Kolab is only compatible with Chrome for now, which isn’t a problem for me but definitely can be for a lot of people. I understand it’s only a beta version, but it certainly wasn’t as polished as I would have liked.
Kolab’s limited beta will be available to the first 15,000 users that sign up on their website. Get on Chrome, log into Facebook, and nab one before they’re gone here.
We were lucky enough to meet with Vernon Kerswell at ExtremeFliers, a 20-something inventor with a passion for little flying things. His latest creation, the Microdrone 2.0, puts a surprisingly powerful brain inside a drone that is about as big as a baseball.
The Microdrone has built-in IR sensors as well as a six-axis gyroscope that stabilizes the copter immediately. Vernon was an effusive and effective presenter, running the drone through its paces as he described his trip to China to find the parts he needed to mass produce these little things.
Kerswell is the epitome of the start-up salesman and his excitement about his new product is palpable. I’m looking forward to trying it out in the harsh environment that is my home when it is launched in May for about $100.