Ramblings and details about the various projects we do. Some are to support working while sailing, living and traveling aboard a cruising sailboat. And some are just fun little….projects. Projects categories of technology minutiae and strategy.
Projects include topics of “email anywhere” and “staying virtually connected while sailing and disconnected in an increasingly always-on world. First, let’s establish what I mean by disconnected. For me, disconnected doesn’t mean that my cell phone or ipad battery has died and I can’t charge it up right now. I mean really disconnected, as in there are no wifi or cell phone signals available and we might not be able to get near to one of those for weeks. Yet, we still want to stay connected.
Flash back a few years and we were living in a big house with high-speed DSL and had our startup business in a facility with a T1 line. When we said “the server” we were referring to that computer box by my leg that hosted our web server, our email, or phone system, and all sorts of other nifty connecting things. Just to be clear, our business was not an IT business, we used computers as tools to support our business, but we were always-on. In a strange twist of irony, most of that time we didn’t even have a cell phone. Why bother with one when we spent virtually all of our time next to computers at home or at the business–there were better ways to stay connected and we had them. And as startup business owners, we didn’t have a life–we were glued to the office anyway.
Then we planned our transition to a mobile lifestyle. We had no intention of becoming hermits, but we would no longer have those computers next to us with 24/7 high-speed connections. It was a stressful transition in mid-2006, but after that transition, our most consistent “wired” connection has been through the data plan on our new Palm Treo 700P cell phone. With this new mobile lifestyle we have now lived many places, but ironically the place we felt most disconnected was virtually in the middle of a major US city called San Diego. We were living on a boat right in the middle of the bay, yet our cell phone could rarely complete a call. It wasn’t the carrier, others near us had plans by each of the other major cell phone carriers and they had the same problem, but we called our carrier and complained anyway. Nothing changed.
We decided to take matters into our own hands. Our first attempt to fix the problem was to attach an external antenna to the cell phone which we raised high above the water. There was an immediate change. Now, every time we tried to make a call, it went through Mextel, the Mexican phone company. Many more calls to our cell-phone carrier resulted an offer for “free international long distance.” We eagerly accepted that, but it didn’t really fix the problem because even though our carrier now didn’t charge for phone calls “from Mexico”–remember that we are actually in San Diego, a US city–Mexico did charge for every minute–and they charged a lot.
When we transitioned to our mobile life we decided that we wanted the ability to be virtually connected 24/7 even if we weren’t. To do that we set up a virtual private server (VPS). A VPS is something that feels like a real server in the sense that you can turn it off, reboot it, install any software you want to on it–only, you can’t touch it. We weren’t sure where our VPS really was, but we knew it was far away. We also questioned if our new VPS was really a server because we couldn’t touch it. Making the headlines at the time was a debate centered on demoting the outer-most big rock in our solar system, Pluto, from planet status. The analog was perfect, so we named our new VPS “Pluto” and moved all of our server duties to that distant place where they have remained ever since.
Back to our situation in San Diego, while we couldn’t complete a phone call, the phone’s EVDO data worked OK (not perfectly and not blazingly fast like in some other places). This begged the experiment of using our VOIP server on Pluto to make a call. The best SIP client was my Nokia N810 internet tablet. It seemed a long-shot considering the topology. I had a wireless bluetooth on my N810. The N810 SIP client connected to Pluto via a wifi link to our Linksys router. The Linksys router was setup to route via a wifi connected laptop. The laptop had the cell phone connected to it by the usb tether and routed data packets out through the EVDO network. Then, via some path, those packets arrived at our VPS. The VPS uses a VOIP provider called voicepulse.com to place calls to “normal” people with the typical house or cell phone. And the result was that this Rube Goldberg contraption could make and place calls over the cell phone data network even when it was impossible to just dial the number with the cell phone. This experiment is testimony to the robustness of the internet tcp/ip technology.
The end result was that we were once again connected even though it was via the circuitous route to our distant VPS Pluto. A side benefit of having a VPS is that periodically Pluto becomes faster and gets more RAM and I have to do nothing. All I do is install and configure the programs I want to be running 24/7 as my virtual presence.