Solar storms—threat or too much hype?

Lately, it seems that every week or so, there’s a news story about solar storms, explosions, and flares, which, as the news stories ominously tell us, can take down entire power grids, disable phones and satellite navigation, and generally wreak havoc with electronics. But yet we seem to continue getting power and everything continues to function. Are solar storms all just hype or is there really a threat?

The sun is now entering the most active part of its cycle, producing explosions that spin solar winds towards the Earth. These solar storms produce damaging bursts of radiation, radio, and magnetic emissions and are perfectly capable of taking down power grids and computer networks. There is a long history of solar storms causing damage. In 1859 a solar “super storm” caused auroras that lit up the skies as far south as the Caribbean and disabled telegraph systems. In 1972, a solar flare disabled telephone service in Illinois. In 1989, a solar disturbance brought down the power grid in Quebec.

The current solar storm cycle is expected to peak in 2013. If it produces another solar super storm like the one in 1859, the effects would be devastating. Not only are today’s sophisticated electronics are far more vulnerable than 19th-century telegraph systems, but we’re also far more dependent on those electronics. A massive solar storm could easily bring down power grids around the world, ground planes, and disable the Internet.

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Fiber ring topology provides both distance and resilience

Although Ethernet is usually thought of as having a star topology, it’s also possible to build an Ethernet network as a ring. This configuration has the advantage of providing a redundant pathway if a link goes down. A ring topology is often used in application such as traffic signals and surveillance, where long distances may make it difficult to run fiber in a star formation from a central switch and where downtime must be minimized.

The key to the ring topology is spanning tree protocol. One switch-in this case, the switch in the central office-is the root of the spanning tree. A node on the opposite side of the ring blocks on of the ports leading back to the root switch, creating a topology that functions like a long line of Ethernet switches. If a link breaks, the network reorganizes itself to relink all the switches. Although this convergence isn’t instantaneous, it takes only a few seconds to bring the network back. In the diagram below, Hardened Managed Ethernet Switches create a ring topology that operates at Gigabit speed to support traffic cameras at the interaction. Industrial Ethernet Serial Servers make the connection from the switch to the serial interface on the traffic signals, enabling central management of the lights across the Ethernet network.

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Storm season = surge protection

It was a dark and stormy night.

A line of storms blew through the Black Box campus in Lawrence, Pennsylvania yesterday. The power flickered, the UPSs beeped, and we were reminded again that it’s that time of year. It’s time for summer power problems.

Summer with its electrical storms, downed trees, and cranked-up AC, always seems to bring out the worst in our power grid. We tend to suffer from fading power—the lights dim and the background hum of civilization drops a notch, then recovers a few moments later when the power gets back up to speed.


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Less often, we get a power surge like the big one we had at my home recently. The surge killed a couple of small appliances, but our nice new flat-screen TV was okay because a surge strip bravely gave up its life to save it. Part of the surge strip actually melted and the house smelled like ozone and burnt plastic for a couple of days afterwards. This is exactly what a good surge protector is supposed to do—sacrifice itself to preserve the expensive stuff when the big jolt comes through. Wish I’d thought to put a surge protector on the microwave.

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Unauthorized cable sold at Big Lots

Hopefully most of you don’t rely on Big Lots for your cable. At the end of March 2012, UL issued a public warning about the unauthorized use of the UL® mark on packages of CAT5e and USB patch cable. In the warning, UL states that “The products bear an unauthorized UL Mark on the product packaging. The products have not been evaluated by UL to the applicable Standard for Safety and it is unknown if they comply with the UL safety requirements.”

The cables listed in the notices are TriQuest 15-foot CAT5e patch cable, model number 60-0102, and TriQuest 10-foot USB 2.0 patch cable, model number 60-0302. The notice reports that the CAT5e cables first went into production in March 2010 and that 124,300 units were produced. The USB cables went into production in February 2010 and 95,120 units were produced. The cables are manufactured by Sela Products, LLC, and they are made in China.

ul_markThe back of the cable packages is marked with the UL mark in a circle and the words UL Approved. They are not approved, and the use of the UL mark is fraudulent. You can see photos of the cables and read the notice at the UL Website.

Sorting Out Media Players for Digital Signage: Q&A

We sat down with Eric Farkas, Senior Research & Development Engineer here at Black Box, and asked him a couple of questions about what kind of media player is needed for digital signage deployments.

There is much confusion in the industry about the kind of “media player” needed for a digital signage deployment. Many screen manufacturers now have PCs embedded into the screen– so is the need for a separate media player less in today’s market?
I think the thing to keep in mind is that it’s still a media player either way. You can call it an embedded PC in the display, but it is still a media player. What the screen manufacturers don’t necessarily tell you is that built-in media players typically suffer from heat-related issues, have smaller storage capacities, and have less processing power. I think cleaning up the cabling mess by integration does add some value, but losing the freedom to size the hardware resources appropriate to your hardware outweighs it. Also I’m wondering where the guarantee is that this slot will be available on the next generation of displays. If I buy embedded PCs for my signage and a few years from now I need to replace displays due to EoL or I desire to upgrade, can I still use them? External hardware is a pretty definite yes.

Doesn’t the embedded PC act as the media player?

And don’t some content management software platforms run on Windows, so they need a full PC/player in each screen, not just a “media player”?
That’s a good question, and frankly, a lot of us suffer from the same confusion as those who ask this question. A media player to me is a PC whether embedded or external, and it has all the same attributes one would associate with a PC. To answer the question, complex digital signage requires an operating system and an application running on PC style hardware. There is technology that simply decodes a network stream or plays a loop from some type of flash storage, but I’m not sure this fits the current definition of digital signage. I guess it begs the question, is a DVD or Blu-ray player digital signage? Is a digital photo frame digital signage? If your answer is yes, then the PC is no longer required but if it’s no…

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