Throwing Away My Business Cards

Business Cards on Fire

Ok, not really. But think about it. Business cards kind of suck, right? You go through some sort of re-org, the company does a branding change, your role changes, whatever. But that box of cards you got? I bet you didn’t get half way through it before something changed and the cards were rendered useless to some degree.

Maybe a phone number changed and you found yourself scribbling on the cards with a pen and writing the new number in there. Maybe the company’s logo changed and marketing has strictly embargoed use of all the old branding. Whatever, you find yourself, once again, getting rid of a stack of business cards. In my case, there’s another thing I find completely annoying – the cost of shipping the things. My company has worked out some kind of spectacular deal with the company they buy business cards from. But the shipping? Yow. So, 500 cards is like $7, but UPS Ground for that same order is $25. Multiply that times how many people and how often roles and branding changes, and that’s a lot of money and paper.

So, what could we do instead? For the past many years, most mobile phones, whether iOS or Android have had NFC (Near Field Communication) capabilities built in. So what’s NFC do? Without going into the nuts & bolts, it’s a protocol that makes communication between 2 things as easy as bringing them near to each other. It’s how things like tap-to-pay systems work. Like the one in your American Express card, or Apple/Google Pay, etc. The great thing about NFC tech? You can use it to store tons of different types of data and share it between devices.

Ok, so now that I’ve hooked you, how do we save the environment while impressing everyone with our amazing command of technology? If you’re the DIY type (like me) maybe you just program a URL on an NFC device and let folks scan that. Maybe you want something more packaged/turnkey and are willing to cough up some cash to pay for it – there are business models for both. I’ll spend the bulk of the rest of this article talking through the DIY model. If you really want to go down the packaged route – look at something like Popl. They’ve got a bunch of stuff ranging from QR code stickers to a variety of NFC devices coupled with a service that comes in free and subscription versions. The free version frames your content and lacks flexibility, while the pay-for version offers a lot more options. I’m not a fan of sticking a third party in the middle of any interactions I’m having with people I’m sharing my contact info with, so I ruled them out immediately.

Step one – you need something to point folks at. It could be a site like Beacons or Linktree, both of which come in free versions, it could be a social media profile page, like your LinkedIn profile or maybe your Instagram, or perhaps it could be a link to a website you stand up specifically for this purpose. In my case, I went for that last one.

I’m not much of a web designer, though I can do a decent job of modifying someone else’s design to suit my needs. So, I came upon the lovely html5up.net site, where one can find a bunch of great templates to work from. I settled on the Aerial template, swapped out the background for something that had more of a “networking” vibe, ripped out the Font Awesome v5 bits, replaced them with the latest v6 bits, tweaked some bits, created a profile pic using the super cool AI-driven https://thispersondoesnotexist.com/ site, and generated a vCard using the macOS Contacts app. In a few minutes, this demo was ready to roll. Honestly, the demo has the most impact on your phone, since when you hit the link on the far right it launches the vCard in your Contacts app.

Hosting? Free, fast and easy. GitHub Pages. Get yourself a GitHub login if you don’t already have one. Read up on how to turn a simple GitHub repo into a website here. It’s so easy you’re practically done before you’re started. I’m not kidding. Your URL will look something like https://youruser.github.io/.

Ready? Program that into the NFC thingy of your choosing as a URL object. Cool. So, what’s the NFC thingy I’m choosing? Great question. You’ve got options. I’ve got a couple of things myself. My first thing was a metal business card. Yes, metal (who’s making metal fingers right now with me? Yeah, I know.) I got it from Tyler at TapTag. He’s such a good dude. He’ll answer all of the stupid questions bouncing around in your head right now. I know he answered the ones I had – I’m sure he’ll keep going with you too. He’s such a great guy, patient too. Send him your business. Prices are good too.

Another interesting option is an NFC sticker. I picked up some black NTAG 215 stickers from Amazon, and popped one on the back of my phone case. I’ve got 2 actual pages like above. One’s for business use – that one’s linked from the actual “business card” that I walk around with in my wallet and wave around at business functions, and the other is linked from the sticker on the back of my phone case. The business card tag also has a QR code printed on the back side that goes to the same URL for folks who are either NFC challenged, or just plain refuse to scan a tag.

So, do your part, stop wasting all that paper and get with the program.

It’s DNS. Again.

Oh, hello there…

Ok, so I opened Pandora’s box by starting to talk about DNS. I figure I should probably do a proper job of completely murdering the topic and kill it off for good. So – Unbound was the call. I don’t need to run an authoritative server at home any longer. Otherwise, I’d probably have stuck with BIND, honestly. I know it, it’s a pain at times, anything in it related to DNS over HTTPS or TLS is totally experimental, not ready for client-side, but the devil you know, right?

So, Unbound it is. I did a bit of a read-up, and between the Arch Linux wiki, the official docs, and a couple of random config snippets, and I had a config. As I mentioned in the other post, I used certbot to generate my DNS over TLS cert. I’m actually using the same cert for DNS over HTTPS, but the clients don’t really get to see that cert. Why? Well, these hosts also serve up other apps via https, so traefik is installed, and thus is bound to tcp/443, and I didn’t feel like messing with multiple IPs and binding different services to different IPs, so I just tied Unbound’s DNS-o-HTTPS to tcp/1443, and created a traefik service to front it with HTTPS, so it all works out in the end. Clients are none-the-wiser. Yes, there’s a little extra config, and this definitely flies in the face of my mantra of discarding technical debt. But what’s the greater debt – moving a port and making a reverse proxy entry, or setting up a whole new IP and playing around with all sorts of service bindings and ensuring that the right ports are bound the right IPs in the right places? Yeah, you’re seeing it now.

So, on to the config. It’s not the exact config, but it’s close enough. I’ve changed some bits to protect the sanctity of the innards of my home net. On my systems, I’m running Ubuntu Jammy (that’s 22.04 LTS), so I just installed the unbound package via apt, then dropped this in /etc/unbound/unbound.d/server.conf (the file doesn’t exist – you create it). There’s a handy syntax checker called unbound-checkconf, which helps you figure out where you’ve managed to fat-finger things in your config and mess it up. Ask me how I know how useful it is…

server:
    port: 53
    tls-port: 853
    https-port: 1443
    verbosity: 0
    num-threads: 2
    outgoing-range: 512
    num-queries-per-thread: 1024
    msg-cache-size: 32m
    interface: 0.0.0.0
    interface: 0.0.0.0@853
    interface: 0.0.0.0@1443
    rrset-cache-size: 64m
    cache-max-ttl: 86400
    infra-host-ttl: 60
    infra-lame-ttl: 120
    access-control: 127.0.0.0/8 allow
    access-control: 0.0.0.0/0 allow
    username: unbound
    directory: "/etc/unbound"
    use-syslog: yes
    hide-version: yes
    so-rcvbuf: 4m
    so-sndbuf: 4m
    do-ip4: yes
    do-ip6: no
    do-udp: yes
    do-tcp: yes
    log-queries: no
    log-servfail: no
    log-local-actions: no
    log-replies: no
    extended-statistics: yes
    statistics-cumulative: yes
    tls-service-key: /etc/letsencrypt/live/dns.home.somedomain.net/privkey.pem
    tls-service-pem: /etc/letsencrypt/live/dns.home.somedomain.net/cert.pem
    http-endpoint: "/dns-query"
    http-nodelay: yes
    private-address: 10.0.0.0/8
    private-address: 172.16.0.0/12
    private-address: 192.168.0.0/16
    private-address: 169.254.0.0/16
    private-domain: "home.somedomain.net"
    do-not-query-localhost: yes
    tls-cert-bundle: "/etc/ssl/certs/ca-certificates.crt"
    local-zone: "10.in-addr.arpa." transparent
    local-data: "1.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.   600 IN PTR router.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "2.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.   600 IN PTR switch.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "3.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.   600 IN PTR ap1.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "4.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.   600 IN PTR ap2.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "5.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.   600 IN PTR ap3.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "6.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.   600 IN PTR printer.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "10.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.  600 IN PTR server1.home.somedomain.net."
    local-data: "20.10.10.10.in-addr.arpa.  600 IN PTR server2.home.somedomain.net."


remote-control:
    control-enable: yes
    control-port: 953
    control-use-cert: "yes"
    control-interface: 127.0.0.1
    server-key-file: "/etc/unbound/unbound_server.key"
    server-cert-file: "/etc/unbound/unbound_server.pem"
    control-key-file: "/etc/unbound/unbound_control.key"
    control-cert-file: "/etc/unbound/unbound_control.pem"

forward-zone:
    name: "."
    forward-tls-upstream: yes
    forward-addr: 1.1.1.1@853#cloudflare-dns.com
    forward-addr: 1.0.0.1@853#cloudflare-dns.com
    forward-addr: 9.9.9.9@853#dns.quad9.net
    forward-addr: 149.112.112.112@853#dns.quad9.net
    forward-addr: 8.8.8.8@853#dns.google
    forward-addr: 8.8.4.4@853#dns.google

Embracing Simplicity. Again. This time, it’s DNS.

Public Enemy #1

I, like many, hate DNS. I tolerate it. It’s there because, well, I need it. There’s just only so many IP addresses one can keep rattling around inside one’s head, right? So, it’s DNS.

For years, I ran the old standard, BIND under Linux here at home. My old BIND config did a local forward to dnscrypt-proxy, which ran bound to a port on localhost, and then in turn pushed traffic out to external DNS servers like Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 or IBM’s 9.9.9.9. I didn’t think my ISP was entitled to be able to snoop on what DNS lookups I was doing. They still aren’t entitled to those, so I didn’t want to lose that regardless of what I ended up doing.

Out in the real world, my domain’s DNS was hosted by DNS Made Easy. They’ve got a great product. It’s reliable, and it’s not insanely expensive. It’s not nothing, but we’re not talking hundreds a year either. I think it’s about $50 a year for more domains and queries than I could possibly ever use. But, like many old schoolers, they’ve lagged behind the times. Yes, they’ve got things like a nice API, and do support DNSSEC, but DNSSEC is only available in their super expensive plans that start at $1700+ a year. That’s just not happening. So, I started looking around.

I landed on Cloudflare. They’ve got a free tier that fits the bill for me. Plenty of record space, a nice API, dare I say, a nicer API even. DNSSEC included in that free tier at no cost even. How do you beat free? I was using a mish-mash of internal and external DNS with delegated subdomains for internal vs external sites as well. It was (again) complicated – and a pain in the rear.

So, I registered a new domain to use just for private use. I did that through Cloudflare as well. As a registrar, they were nice to work with too. They pass that through at cost. Nice and smooth setup. So, internal stuff now consists of names that are [host/app].site.domain.net. Traefik is setup using the Cloudflare dns-01 letsencrypt challenge to get certs issued to secure it all, and the connectivity, as discussed before in the other post is all by Tailscale. The apps are all deployed using Docker with Portainer. The stacks (ok, they’re just docker-compose files) in Portainer are all maintained in private GitHub repos. I’ll do a post on that in more detail soon.

Ok, so what did I do with the DNS at home? Did I just ditch the resolver in the house entirely? I did not. In the end I opted for dumping BIND after all these years and replacing it with Unbound. I had to do a bit of reading on it, but the configuration is quite a bit less complex, since I wasn’t configuring zone files any more. I was just setting up a small handful of bits like what interfaces did I want to listen to, what did I want my cache parameters to look like, and what did I want to do with DNS traffic for the outside world, which pretty much everything is? In my case, I wanted to forward it to something fast and secured. I was already crushing pretty hard on Cloudflare, so 1.1.1.1 and 1.0.0.1 were easy choices. I’m also using IBM’s 9.9.9.9 as well. All of those are forwarding out using DNS-over-TLS, and DoT, or sometimes DOT. It worked for me first try.

Then I grabbed the Ubuntu certbot snap and told it to grab a cert for dns.home.$(newdomain).net, which is attached to this moon. After I got the cert issued, it was a piece of cake to turn up both DNS over HTTPS and DNS over TLS, and DoH and DoT.

It was fairly easy to get DoH working on a Windows 11 PC. It was also super easy to craft an MDM-style config profile for DoT that works great on IOS and iPadOS devices. Microsoft has Apple beat cold in this department. Well, in the Apple wold, if you configure a profile for DoT (the only way you can get it in there) you’re stuck with it until you get rid of it – by uninstalling and reinstalling.

On Windows? It was as easy as setting your DNS servers to manual, then crack open a command prompt as Administrator and then (assuming your DNS server is 10.10.10.10)…

netsh dns add encryption 10.10.10.10 https://my.great.server/dns-query

Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to choose from a list under where you punch in DNS settings in the network settings and turn on Encryption for your DNS connection. It’s working great!

Cutting the Cord: How We Did It.

Ok, so we’re going to take a break from our usual geekery to talk about watching TV without having a traditional Cable TV subscription. There’s this recurring discussion that keeps happening on our town Facebook group and I keep ending up going through parts of what I’m writing here.

Verizon FiOS Bill
A Sample FiOS Bill From Someone in My Town

My mind was absolutely blown this morning when I saw a picture of one person’s FiOS bill. It’s shown at the right. So that’s almost $2600/year.

Many folks will suggest you just go with Internet-only packages and a streaming service like YouTube TV, Hulu Live TV, Sling, or whatever, with Smart TVs or set-top devices like Apple TV, Roku, or Fire TV, and it’s tough to argue with the simplicity of that solution. It’s pretty much a turnkey and go type of solution. Plug it all in, turn it on, login and you’re watching TV in a few minutes, even local channels with sports. Checking out our neighbor’s use case here and substituting in what many in town are paying, she could move to an Internet-only plan for about $75 a month, and use one of the many streaming services for about $55-65/month, depending on who you picked, and you just turned $2600 a year into $1700 a year. What could you do with an extra $900 in your budget? Only thing though, we made some assumptions here, like equipment – we’re assuming that you’ve got all Smart TVs that have the ability to accommodate whatever streaming service(s) you’re planning to use. Otherwise, you’re buying a device to hook up to the TV. That’s going involve some up-front cost, which will eat into that $900, at least for the first year.

The solution I’ve built out at our house involves more up-front expense, but involves no recurring costs apart from our normal Internet access costs. In our case, this is the Verizon FiOS Gigabit plan. We’ve had FiOS Internet since we moved into our current house, about 15 years ago, back when it was 25/5 service. How the times have changed!

We’ve got a roof-mounted antenna that we installed a couple of years ago when we made the big switch. Not being the “climbing on the roof” type, I contracted this part out. I found a local company that did the job, including the antenna (a Channel Master CM-3016, now called the Advantage 45). Rather than connecting to a TV, the antenna is connected to a networked TV tuner device. In our case, we’re using an HD HomeRun (an HDHomeRun Connect 4K). This unit has 4 digital/ATSC tuners, 2 of which are ATSC 3.0 capable, and connected to our network using a wired Ethernet cable (not WiFi). ATSC 3.0 is the new standard that’s rolling out that supports 4K over-the-air broadcast TV.

So, that’s got local TV signal from the airwaves into the house and onto our network! How do we watch it? There are a couple of ways. SiliconDust (the folks who make the HDHomeRun box) offer apps for the major streaming devices and Smart TVs that let you access the device, decide what channel to tune, watch TV, even pause live TV. What’s not there though is all the DVR capabilities you’d want to have. No ability to record shows. So let’s talk about how I’m getting that.

To get DVR functions. I’m using the Plex Media Server. I’m running Plex on a custom-built server on our network that runs the Ubuntu Linux operating system, with our media files stored on a Synology Network Attached Storage array. We’re using the Network File System (or NFS, if you’re a Unix type) to mount the drive on the Plex system from the NAS. It works really well. Plex has great support for the HD HomeRun devices too. You go into the Plex settings, tell it to take a look around your network, it finds the tuner, scans for available channels, you pick the ones you want to make available, then Plex goes and grabs guide data, just like you’re probably used to having on a cable box.

Plex Program Guide
Plex Program Guide

Once you’ve reached this point, you’ve got access to a pretty normal looking programming guide, and even have familiar looking DVR features like recording single episodes, or all upcoming episodes. If you decide to do the latter, you’ve got even more options at your disposal, like the ability to record only new episodes, or choose how many episodes to retain, how long to retain episodes, if you prefer HD episodes, or only want HD episodes. Maybe you only want to record from a specific channel, or only at a certain time. Those options are useful when it’s a show that’s syndicated and on multiple channels at multiple times. Then there’s extra fun stuff like built-in channel skip. You can mark for channel skip or let Plex take the wheel and try its hand at just chopping the commercials out totally on its own. I’ve had a mix of experiences both good and bad letting it go on its own. Sometimes it’s great, and other times, I’ve missed Final Jeopardy during a tight match. So, I don’t typically go beyond “Mark for Skip”. Honestly, it’s pretty accurate.

Our Home Plex Environment
Our Home Plex Environment

So, now that I’ve described how the bits fit together, let’s actually take a look at a diagram (Click to enlarge). It’s more of a logical diagram, really. I work in networking, so I prefer to keep network elements like my routers, switches and WiFi Access Points separated, so those are all individual pieces in our house. In yours, they’re probably not. You may be used to a converged device that’s a Router/Switch/and WiFi Access Point all-rolled-into-one, and that’s alright. You do you! But, this is how I’ve built what we’ve got. The different colors indicate different types of connections. Black is the coax from the antenna to the HD HomeRun. Red is the fiber optic cable from the street the Verizon Optical Network Terminal (aka ONT) on the side of the house (in real life, it’s probably yellow, but yellow on a white background? really hard to see!). Blue is plain old Ethernet cable.

So, if you were going to build something like this, what would you want to buy, what would it cost, and when would you start saving money compared to getting taken to the cleaners by Verizon? Great questions. The answers really depend on what you like to watch for TV. If all you watch are local network shows, you’ll recoup your investment in about a year. If you watch other stuff, it might take longer. If your mobile phone plan includes streaming services for free, as many do, that’s a bonus. For example, we’re a T-Mobile house. We get free Netflix thrown in with our family plan. Some Verizon customers get Disney+ for free. There are tons of deals from carriers, figure out what works best for you and exploit it to your advantage.

If you want a simpler more “turnkey” type experience, I’d suggest you look toward the Synology NAS as a solution. Plex runs on Synology, works great, and your storage is built right in there. There are trade-offs, but honestly, if you’re savvy enough to know that you’re impacted by those trade-offs, you’ll also know if the value proposition is there for you to spend more to work around it. You could shave some $$ by building your own small server out of something like a BeeLink Mini PC, available from Amazon, install something like Ubuntu Linux on there and run Plex on it yourself, but there’s a much steeper learning curve involved in that path.

Converged Plex Environment
Converged Plex Environment

If you’re interested in pursuing this idea, check out the diagram at the right for the view of the simplified version of what we’re running at our house. You’ll note the use of the Verizon-provided FiOS router, and the Synology NAS, or the small server. But the rest is pretty much the same. Now of course, you don’t have to use that same Channel Master antenna I did, but I’m here to tell you that it’s pretty difficult to beat their performance, especially at their price point. Speaking of price points… On to what you’ve all been waiting for. The numbers. First, some assumptions I made in my analysis… I looked at my neighbor’s use case up above. 7 TVs, with a DVR requirement. I kicked the Internet speed up from 200M to Gigabit using what I’m paying per month on the autopay discount to do the cost modeling. The full comparison is a 3-Year Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) Model. First up, building with the Synology NAS, with redundant 6TB of redundant storage, then the Small Server build, followed by keeping the FiOS Triple Play Bundle at $214.99 a month. That’s the easiest one to calculate, of course, since it’s just 36 months of service at $214.99.

ItemLinkUnit PriceQtyTotal
NAShttps://smile.amazon.com/dp/B087Z6SNC1$399.991$399.99
Hard Driveshttps://smile.amazon.com/dp/B085Z4P89R$129.992$259.99
Plex Softwarehttps://www.plex.tv/plex-pass/$119.991$119.99
Antenna w/InstallNJ-based Installer Company I used$250.001$250.00
HD HomeRunhttps://smile.amazon.com/dp/B092GCN9NL$199.991$199.99
Roku Stick 4K+https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B09BKCQYRN$69.007$483.00
FiOS Gigabit$75.0012$900.00
$2612.95
Converged Plex, Synology Build, Year 1 Total Cost of Ownership

ItemLinkUnit PriceQtyTotal
BeeLink U59https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B09H5QXS6K$250.001$250.00
2TB SSDhttps://smile.amazon.com/dp/B089C6LZ42$187.661$187.66
Plex Softwarehttps://www.plex.tv/plex-pass/$119.991$119.99
Antenna w/InstallNJ-based Installer Company I used$250.001$250.00
HD HomeRunhttps://smile.amazon.com/dp/B092GCN9NL$199.991$199.99
Roku Stick 4K+https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B09BKCQYRN$69.007$483.00
FiOS Gigabit$75.0012$900.00
$2,391.74
Converged Plex, Small Server Build, Year 1 Total Cost of Ownership

3-Year Total Cost of Ownership Model

As you can see in the graph shown at the right, the Small Server and the Synology NAS builds are quite close in the 3-Year TCO model, landing about $200 apart across the entire time. Given this, unless you’ve got serious reasons to pursue the Small Server route, I’d recommend going down the Synology NAS route. You get built-in drive redundancy, more storage space, and a turnkey web-driven management interface that falls out of the box ready to go.

Please, don’t forget, there’s also nothing wrong with just simply dropping the Triple-Play and picking up a streaming TV service. You’re going to cut your monthly expenses in half here. But, if you want to go deeper, and learn a few things along the way, you can. This is the way.