embedded software boot camp

Unexpected uses and the consequences thereof

Friday, November 3rd, 2006 by Nigel Jones

I’ll pose today’s blog in the form of one of those lateral thinking questions – which you may want to try and solve before moving on to the rest of the post.

An engineer walks into a meeting, unpacks his laptop and an Ethernet hub, powers both up and then connects an Ethernet cable between the laptop and the hub. No other connections are made to the hub. Explain.

Well I suppose two obvious answers are that the engineer is nuts (likely), or that the engineer doesn’t understand the basics of Ethernet technology (less likely). Of course, in this case, the engineer is me, and while I can’t really attest to my mental state, I do know a thing or two about Ethernet. So what is causing this strange behaviour?

Well, like many engineers, I use some very expensive software. The vendors of this software, in an effort to protect their product from unpaid copying, lock the software to the computer’s NIC. (For the uninitiated, every Ethernet interface IC on the planet has a unique MAC address. Thus any computer with a NIC has a built in unique identifier). Now the vendor of my laptop (Toshiba), in a sensible effort to conserve power, powers down the NIC when it detects no valid signal on the Ethernet port. When the NIC is powered down, it can’t respond to requests for its MAC address, and so the copy protection scheme complains and I can’t run my expensive software.

Who is to blame here? I can’t really fault the SW vendor for wanting to protect their investment, and I can’t blame Toshiba for wanting to minimize the power consumption of their product. I suppose it would be nice if Toshiba provided a utility to prevent the auto power down – but that’s probably inconsistent with them trying to make the system easy to use for the average consumer. I think the answer is that the fault lies with us in the engineering community. We value great tools, but apparently enough of us (and our employers) are dishonest enough that we’ll copy them if we get the chance. Apparently part of the price we pay for this is looking like idiots when we walk into meetings…

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