Stocking-Stuffer Gifts for the IT Crowd

By David Morgenstern  |  Posted 2006-12-15

Stocking-Stuffer Gifts for the IT Crowd

The gift-giving-and-receiving time is heading toward us pell-mell. And as is so often the case, the joy of the season fades a bit when it comes to the receiving part. We must admit it: we IT and storage folk are part of the hard-to-shop-for demographic.

So, I looked around for some large and small gift-sized useful high- and low-tech items that will be welcome in almost any IT tool kit, workbench or desk drawer. A few are items that could be lifesavers (or jobsavers) in the data center. And Ive tossed in a couple of fun gadgets that may spark some technological and social debates around your water cooler.

Making the right connections. After a while, the old drives start stacking up on the shelf and so do their replacements. There are all kinds and all sizes of mechanisms. But what about a fast and easy way to connect them to a host and check them out?

For the past few weeks, Ive been using a kit that is designed for the purpose: Granite Digitals USB 2.0 High-Speed Bridge Adapter. This small dongle provides an array of connectors for 2.5-, 3.5- and 5.25-inch IDE (integrated development environment) or SATA (Serial ATA) mechanisms, letting you mount and transfer files via a USB port.

I attached a 2.5-inch drive to the Bridge Adapter (one pin needed a bit of realignment, sorry to say), plugged the USB 2.0 connector into my laptop and the drive mounted straight away. I was copying files over in less than a minute.

Now, this notebook drive gets its power from USB, but the kit comes with an external power supply for larger drives, including the familiar 4-pin IDE and the 15-contact connector used for powering SATA drives.

The connectors for the various sizes of IDE mechanisms are built into the molded plastic housing of the Bridge Adapter; however, the short unshielded, SATA cable (just a few inches long and uses the internal L-type physical interface) can be swapped with a longer one, Granite Digital representatives said. The kit lists for $39.95, and a carrying case is an extra $9.95.

CSI-style storage. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for eDiscovery went into effect at the start of the month, and vendors are lining up to pitch solutions. These rules tell companies what information needs to be collected and then produced in federal legal discovery proceedings (both in terms of its subject and the formats the data might exist in) as well as how it will be archived.

Its one thing to search through records stored in a database or in an archive and another to look through a notebook or desktop machine yourself. Its not the technology implications Im thinking of here but rather the legal implications of opening live records.

Enter drive vendor WiebeTech with its Forensic ComboDock v4 "field imager." The device lets you attach the "suspect" IDE or SATA drive to a host system and then copy a complete image of the data over USB 2 and FireWire 400/800 without the risk of anything being written back to the drive.

The kit comes standard with the write-blocked connector for a 3.5-inch mechanism. However, you can upgrade it to connect notebook and SATA mechanisms with a range of adapters that are sold separately. There are even adapters for 1.8-inch mechanisms and smaller drives, such as those used in an iPod. While sized for a stocking, the system isnt cheap: The base unit is $399.95, and the SATA adapter is another $100; the other adapters range in price from $49.95 to $149.95.

In November, WiebeTech introduced Redport, a new line of write-blocked connectors, this time for enterprise-level storage. Versions for SCSI (SCSI Ultra320) and Fibre Channel come as PCIe cards with driver support for Red Hat Linux (2.4 and 2.6 kernel) and SUSE Linux (2.6 kernel), and Windows Server 2003, XP and 2000.

A note on flash drive gifts. A lot of flash drives are winding up in items you wouldnt expect: from pens to plastic fried shrimp. One maker of promotional items lists more than 50 different flavors, colors and capacities. However, I dont care for the ones housed in other useful items, such as pens, since its easy to mistake them for a standard pen.

At the same time, I like the versions in colorful or crazy housings for the opposite reason: Its hard to miss a plastic model of a tuna sushi on your desk. If your desk is covered with plastic toys and sushi, then maybe consider a more standard enclosure for USB flash keys.

Click here to read about Microsofts ReadyBoost and Intels Robson flash cache technologies that can give Windows Vista a speed boost.

Certainly, you will want to make sure that any flash drives you buy have a USB 2.0 interface and can be used as a ReadyBoost memory cache when running Vista. A flash drive compatibility list can be found on Grant Gibsons blog.

Next Page: Light in the dark corners.

Lights in the Dark


Of course, theres more to stocking stuffers than storage. Here are several practical and mostly inexpensive gift ideas that can assist any IT or data center worker:

Checking out the backplane. At a wedding reception a few weeks ago, I asked the assembled IT managers (on the grooms side), for a stocking-stuffer suggestion. All mentioned a mirror to look at the back of a computer or server, even though they admitted that they didnt have one.

One mentioned a dental mirror, meaning the small mirrors that dentists use to inspect the inside of your mouth. It seems to me that this tool would be too small and too short for the task. Another problem is that most of the mirrors on the market are aimed at the automotive industry and often feature a strong rare-earth magnet on the end to pick up a stray bolt or screw. Not so good for IT applications.

Here are a couple of promising candidates:

The best of the lot looks to be Fieldpiece Instruments PLM2 Pocket Extension LED Flashlight. This models handle telescopes out to 30 inches in length and has a moderate-sized 2-by-1-inch mirror. The sweet thing is that the light shines into the mirror and illuminates what youre looking at. It costs about $28.

A similar extending handle with a mirror but no LED costs about $15. (I have one of the companys PMG1, which is the same telescoping pen handle but with a strong magnet on the end.)

On the other hand, some may seek a less analog solution to this remote viewing problem. Searching around online stores, I found a "snake-style" USB Webcam that costs less than $15. The model in question, the Real Digital Life USB 100K Snake PC WebCam, is 18 inches long and provides a focal distance of about an inch (30mm), which is good enough to read a serial number on the back of a box.

Light on the subject. I admit that Im a mild LED flashlight freak; "mild" here meaning that I dont buy a flashlight every month or so, but rather just a few a year. But I do check out regularly the specs at Doug Pribis amazing resource.

Getting sufficient and proper light on and into the hardware with which youre working is important to success and productivity. My eyes are getting older and need more light. However, I find the usual fluorescent bulbs dont put out enough light to reach the dark spots of enclosures or into the shadowed reaches behind server racks.

My favorite light for the server closet is a bit retro but offers a unique technology: the Pelican M8 8020 Recoil LED. This $70 flashlight uses 3 C-sized batteries and is 10 inches long.

Real flashlight freaks will howl that the M8 is not the brightest or the lightest for the money—very true. Instead, they would point out models such as Surefires Digital Lumamax series ($150+) or Fenixlights Fenix P1D series ($60).

However, the trend in LED flashlights is toward small and cool, with black metal cases. Both of the above models incorporate these values into their industrial design. But this also makes the flashlight difficult to find easily, especially when you drop it in the dark (and you will) and it rolls into a bunch of cables on the floor or behind some machines (done that). I have the black-and-yellow version M8, which really stands out, like a school traffic monitors paddle.

Even better is the technology: The Pelican uses a "recoil" architecture to concentrate the light from the LED. The bulb faces backward, toward the user, and is reflected in a parabolic mirror to the front. It has a run-time of 6 hours.

In my surfing, I also noticed Lumatec Industries TwinBeamz flashlight, which has two small LEDs on either end of a bendable snake housing. This $29.95 light my not have much power, but it looks easy to suspend off a rack or hang around your shoulders.

Next Page: The years techno status symbols.

The Years Techno Status


Techno status symbols. Every year, several gifts appear that can bridge the barrier between the digital tech-savvy crowd and the masses who imbibe our mainstream pop culture. Of course, with the transition from an analog culture to a digital one, the distinctions can be fuzzy.

For example, "everyone" now has an iPod, so a tech-savvy person cant be distinguished by everything associated with digital audio or video. Or when Grandma backs up her notebook to a terabyte NAS at home, the size of storage can no longer be a cutoff point for this selection process.

This year, I point to two products/services: laser customization and an interesting robotic wireless toy.

We are surrounded by visual brands and mass-produced products. Everything we buy today seems to have a brand displayed on it, from shirts to notebooks.

To personalize these mass-produced products, vendors offer a wide range of covers, holders and skins, often with yet another piece of branding. I put my iPod nano in an iSkin orange "carbon blast" iSkin Duo cover, which is both colorful and functional, since it glows in the dark.

But could there be a deeper kind of personalization for tech devices? When I read a Make: magazine how-to blog article on laser etching notebook covers, I saw the light. The results look fantastic.

Still, the $15,000 to $20,000 price tag of laser cutters are out of my reach, but I knew we would shortly be seeing this etching process offered as a service to individuals. Now, its happening and coming to a town near you. p>

Adafruit Industries in late November, started offering laser etching services in New York. You bring them an EPS or Adobe Illustrator file, and Adafruit etches your item. A notebook costs $100 to etch, and a smaller device such as a cell phone or iPod costs $30 to etch. The companys Web site says it will be expanding to San Francisco in early 2007.

I like that its personal and permanent. A real tattoo for your gear.

On the other hand, some folks find the messengers of technology intimidating. They perceive computer hardware as cold and unfriendly. They perceive us as cold and unfriendly. And sometimes, they may be right.

Thats why Im intrigued by Violets Nabaztag wireless robot. The name means rabbit in Armenian. Go figure.

The device sits on the desk and can "speak" the text of various data feeds such as stock market results or alert you if you have e-mail in your in-box. For $5 a month, you can customize the service to read your favorite RSS feeds or individualize the mailbox alerts based on sender.

However, theres a whole movement of programming for this device happening around the world. The company offers the APIs for the Nabaztag as open source. For example, SourceForge now has a project of Nabaztools, including Java, Perl and Ruby modules.

Perhaps the little Nabaztag can create a social situation or shared situation that IT staff and nontechnical people can bond over. Or it can be used as a less-threatening vehicle for interoffice messages and warnings from the IT help desk. I mean, the bunnys ears move. Thats gotta mean something!

Finally, I express weariness with the continuing stereotype that technology-aware persons must be Star Trek fans. Of course, theres nothing wrong with that.

For example, at the Burton Groups Catalyst conference in June, each of the IT attendees was handed an invitation to a Novell party. On the cover was an outline of Spock doing the Vulcan salute, along with the following tagline: "Live Long and Prosper: Prosperity and profitability come to businesses and organizations that tap into the power and flexibility of Open Enterprise from Novell."

Would my knowledge of the Vulcan mating ritual, the Pon Farr, push get me over the hospitality suite for open-source tools? Or maybe it might be the free food?

Still, I must admit that the Star Trek 40th Anniversary Limited Edition Phaser looks good to me at this holiday time.

Health and prosperity to all in the New Year. Live long and prosper to us all.

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