Visited: CeBIT Australia 2015

cebit2015badgeAnother year, and it’s another trip to CeBIT Australia, one of Australia’s premier technology trade and business events. This year, it was held Tuesday 5th May to Thursday 7th May at Sydney Olympic Park, similarly to last year.

Being a bit of a CeBIT veteran, having been part of exhibits in years past, and being a consistent visitor over the last (roughly) five years, I know what to expect to some extent. As a result, I didn’t snap any pictures while I was there, instead spending four solid hours roaming across every stand and having some rather enlightened conversations with some of them.

In past years, I had attended under the banner of UNSW Bluesat, but as my accounts with them have been terminated under new management, and the whole infrastructure has been steamrolled, I had to register again at the last minute. This time, I came as myself – an Engineer and a Tech Blogger.

What follows is a bit of a summary of the event from my perspective, in terms of what caught my eye and what interested me. I will mention some company names this year and provide links to their sites, however, keep in mind that a mention does not indicate endorsement on my behalf. If anything, the exhibitors should take this as a bit of a “free bonus” publicity for those who might not have visited this year.

What’s On the Showfloor

Every year, the show itself seems to take on a theme, almost unintentionally. Part of the reason has to do with what is currently the “in” thing when it comes to the technology scene. Cloud based SaaS systems were championed by Salesforce several years back, and then we were hit by 3D printing displays all over the place.

This year, the 3D printing continues, along with a smattering of security focused solutions, some cloud presence but not as much, and a little bit of quadcopter drones as well. But overwhelmingly this year, the one topic was LED lighting. It seems this is the year of LED lighting becoming mainstream amongst new and retrofitted buildings.

A large number of overseas Chinese exhibitors, along with Australian importers were demonstrating LED-based downlights, GLS plug-in replacements, retrofit T8 style tubes, LED “panel” style lights, commercial high-bay and outdoor flood lights. This is no doubt because of the NSW Government’s Energy Saving Scheme, where IPART approved lights installed as part of a commercial LED retrofit can be eligible for rebates and this makes for a big market opportunity especially for overseas companies.

As a bit of an LED lighting aficionado, I toured the LED lighting stands with much interest, and it seems the vast majority of exhibitors were up to scratch with SAA approvals, as required for Australia, and many with even IPART approvals. When quizzed about the construction of their products, overwhelmingly, it seems that emitters and COB units were used from Bridgelux, Samsung, Philips and CREE – all major brand names. When asked about the current driver electronics, Meanwell often is the answer, a reputable switching power supply manufacturer. Some do, however, still roll their own units from start to finish.

Interesting developments in the design were shown – some designs had extreme numbers of chips in series-parallel configuration, which is hardly optimal from a design point of view. It was, however, sold as “complete-failure-proof” as a failure of one emitter in one string will not compromise the other strings, although it will actually likely cause them to be overdriven to some extent if sufficient margin has not been provided. Other designs have been seen with internal fan cooling, which is something which I also dislike as it causes noise and also is a failure prone element.

An increase in the number of phase-change vapour chamber cooling designs have been seen – these reduce the weight of the heatsink and improve thermal transfer capacity using identical technology to heat pipes in CPU coolers – the phase change of a liquid absorbs a lot of energy and transfers it to cooler areas where the liquid recondenses. Additionally, it seems that some companies have succeeded in producing retrofit LED tubes which are compatible with even electronic ballasts and do not need rewiring of the luminaire. They claim no loss of efficiency, and rare compatibility issues, although I do remain skeptical to some degree. Others have created retrofit bulbs with dimming capability, also some flicker was evident.

One of the stars this year was Tesla Model S electric car, along with a charging stand, on show. People were lining up to sit in it, and look around it – although I was not one of them. This wasn’t because I was not enthusiastic about the prospect of the electric car, but more because I realize that it is not ready for prime time at this stage, being unaffordable and the infrastructure unavailable. I do look forward to it becoming the mainstream.

There were also displays of robotics from the University of Wollongong, and some displays of technology problem-solving from NICTA as usual, some of which I have seen before. The arrangement of the show has changed from prior years, and instead of having the younger start-up booths “couched” together in a corner, they instead “line the edges” with their stands. None of them particularly caught my eye.

This year, there were also “campus sessions”, which sound a bit like primers, or seminars about relevant topics in technology, and attendance at one is included within your pass. I don’t claim to be expert at many of these areas, but as I’m not exactly a business operator, I didn’t take the time to attend any of them because I don’t see it as being value for my time.

A more contentious theme, as with previous years, is the issue of outsourcing and it seems this year was the turn of Malaysia to try and convince us to outsource there. I was also approached by someone else on the floor to outsource, to India, it seems. It is somewhat sad, but it seems rather common to see this becoming more popular.

Chatting with the Folks

Across the showfloor, you get the opportunity to meet with technical sales representatives who generally know most things about the products they sell and don’t shy away from a technical conversation about the deeper workings and features of their products. This is a convenient and quick way to get up to speed with the latest offerings and technologies on show, and have a great time talking about things you really care about, along with other things not as closely related.

I was very happy to see the same folks from Icom Australia exhibiting right near the door, with a stand twice the size of the stand last year. They were demonstrating their IP100 Wireless-LAN based handheld radio, much the same as last year, alongside some newer conventional handheld models. I had a great time having a chat with the guys, who definitely knew their stuff, and also had the opportunity to meet with some of their Japanese staff from the Melbourne branch. I was fortunate enough to be given an Icom promotional hat – as a proof of my enthusiasm as an Icom customer, here’s a shot of my oldest “indestructible” IC-40S CB handheld next to it, still functioning well with a rebuilt battery pack. Of course, their brand is highly recognizable amongst radio amateurs, and a fellow ham dropped by while I was there.

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While walking by the stand at Ruckus Wireless, I caught the words “multi-user MIMO wireless AC” which immediately caught my attention. For those who don’t know, this is a technique similar to that used in LTE stations, as a way to overcome spectral inefficiency which arises when the partners in a wireless link have mismatched spatial stream capacity. Imagine, say, an access point with four spatial streams which is theoretically capable of ~1732Mbit/s in 802.11ac mode. The problem is that the majority of devices today, say laptops, may be outfitted with a dual-stream wireless AC chipset (867Mbit/s) and phones could even be outfitted with a single-stream wireless AC chipset (433Mbit/s). In a traditional set-up, the access point would be limited to talking with or receiving from just one client at a time, and thus be limited by the number of streams available from the client. The newer, multiple-user mode of operation, requires an update to end user cards for synchronization purposes, but basically could allow for say two dual-stream cards to upload towards the access point simultaneously to utilize all four streams of the access point and improve aggregate bandwidth. This is relatively complex, although, it is very encouraging to see that the technology is here already and should “trickle down” to end users soon enough. Further to this, because Ruckus have done their work with antennas, they have multiple hardware antennas with different beam patterns available, along with (likely) phasing to create a very large number of beam patterns to optimize coverage and throughput (i.e. by improving SNR to and from a station) above that of your “average” phasing-only beamforming using regular “non-smart” antennas.

Of course, that won’t be the only approach, as just around the corner, I was fortunate enough to meet with a representative from Xirrus which exhibited last year. Their approach seems to be somewhat different – they bought along their more traditional “pizza” shaped AP loaded with a stack of mPCIe radios attached to sectorial antennas so as to divide a room into wedge shaped cells using non-overlapping channels to maximise throughput. They also demonstrated a wall-plate dual-band 802.11ac radio which can be installed either punch-down or with RJ45 plug in, with PoE pass-through – thus not robbing anyone of any ports. This year, they also demonstrate their cloud-based management platform, which is by subscription and is currently still growing features at this stage.

One surprise was to see a representative from Quantenna Communications, the chipset supplier behind the quad-stream wireless 802.11ac solutions such as the Asus RT-AC87, and Netgear Nighthawk X4. As a chipset supplier, they were advertising their QSR1000 chipset, and were more interested in getting their chipsets integrated into gateway devices, having announced that they were chosen for Telstra’s new faster home gateway which was a major win. That being said, I would love to see more products using the chipset, and better support in operating systems (e.g. Linux) of quad-stream capable wireless cards. The true benefit can only be seen where both ends support the same number of spatial streams.

Of course, there were a few other wireless companies scattered, one of them was Telit wireless solutions which is focused on modules for integration with embedded designs for machine to machine connectivity, with a cloud platform as well.

Of course, on the services front, it was great to see myNetFone exhibiting again. I think there was one other voice services provider at the show, but I didn’t have the time to catch them. Anyway, I spoke to one of the friendly and knowledgeable reps at the stand about their new offerings, which include SIP desk-phones for businesses signed up with their cloud PBX solutions. I also mentioned the uncertain future of Pennytel, after it had been acquired by myNetFone, and it seems there hasn’t been much of a decision made either way.

On the 3D printing side of things, Bilby 3D were exhibiting their models on the floor this year. It was pretty interesting to see all of the models they had carefully prepared for display, as well as to see a Double Robotics virtual presence device, as featured in Community, the TV show. I had the most interesting conversation with a girl there, also a former UNSW student, who admitted I was the first to recognize it from Community.

I did have a long chat with the representative from Zeus Appollo, a brand from a diversified investment business which includes an extensive portfolio of LED lights, solar panels, inverters and soon specialized solar battery products. In our long discussion, I discovered they have grid-tie inverters with zero export functionality (which is a boon for those looking to reduce power bills but are not allowed to export to the grid), which also have the capacity to do battery energy storage and can be monitored through an app on your phone. This was a concept which is very useful, but only just recently available to the market, and it seems popular with those seeking to go nearly entirely off-grid in remote areas – a big market for Australia.

They also exhibited large lithium-ion battery packs for portable power, high-bay and flood LED lights. When quizzed on the specifics, the representative from Zeus Appollo definitely knew much more than I would have expected, and really impressed upon me the seriousness of their operation and their quality control measures to ensure the products last for the long term. This includes de-ratings, and careful checks of the design. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t convinced – he knew exactly what to say to all the tough questions.

Another interesting product he alluded to was the SolarBatt, which is (apparently) a specialized solar storage battery with a 1.2v terminal voltage, low maintenance flooded construction, using an existing chemistry but improved upon for solar use. They claim a higher energy density, better tolerance to overcharge compared to lithium-ion, lower cost compared to lithium ion and extreme numbers of cycles at high depth-of-discharge. The chemistry, at this moment, is undisclosed. If I had to guess, I would probably be guessing that it’s a form of Nickel Metal Hydride cell, possibly a flooded type, as similar flooded Nickel Cadmium cells do service on air-planes as auxiliary power batteries and require low maintenance, and can handle some overcharge. The terminal voltage certainly matches, and the improvements in Ni-MH have resulted in low self-discharge separators resulting in the highly successful low-self-discharge Eneloop cells. Otherwise, my other guess would be a form of Vanadium Redox battery, although I could be wrong on both counts – so I really look forward to finding the real answer!

I did also have a brief demonstration from the representative at the Clonix stand, a Korean manufacturer which specializes in disk duplication and wiping. They demonstrated a multi-drive cloning station, as well as a 16-port network based clone station. This is particularly applicable for newer laptops where the drives may be based on mSATA/M2 cards, or might even be soldered onto the board in the future. Closer examination revealed operation via net-boot, which has a host likely pushing an operating system and software image to run in place in RAM and receive/transmit an image and an ATX motherboard inside the chassis with what appeared to be four quad-gigabit NICs plugged in which forms the heart of the system along with a touch screen monitor on the front.

Such a setup could possibly be built at home with Linux and free software – I have used gzip, dd and netcat to clone a laptop while booted off a Linux bootable USB – it’s only one more step to say, fire up Serva and have a PXE boot system running. Most geeks could probably do this if they needed to. Of course, what you pay for is the convenience of documentation, product support, and the reliability.

Also exhibiting include WES Electronics with their IEC lock cables, Congatec with their embedded computer on modules, Telstra with their business solutions, Draytek with their networking products, ESET which … had a Daytona Racing arcade cabinet? Of course, there were many many other exhibitors, although I cannot remember them all!

Networking Gripes

On the whole, the event was very enjoyable and I pretty much lost my voice by the time it had all finished. I enjoyed talking to the vast majority of representatives – it’s not very often you get to contact with people who are passionate about the technology they sell and exhibit and are willing to divulge and discuss the finer points, even if you’re not an immediate consumer. For that, I thank you all for making my stay as enjoyable and enlightening as it was, and I wish you all the success. For some of the others, I had a great time talking with you, even if it wasn’t strictly about your products and I hope I had a positive influence on your day.

It was an opportunity to hand out a few cards, and exchange some details in the name of “networking”. On the whole, most of the stands were more approachable than in prior years, and generally they were well mannered.

A few stands, especially from overseas, tended to be a little bit of a case of polar opposites. Some had withdrawn staff that sat in the corner, and did very little to promote their cause. When asked about their products, they were not able to answer the most basic questions – for example “does this product have SAA approval?” or “does this tube work with electronic ballasts, or do I have to rewire my luminaire?”.

Others were very active in engaging people who were visiting, although over-active, pressuring users to leave their contact details almost against their will. I had to decline repeated requests from one stand, who then pressured me into leaving their e-mail, which I did. After visiting an adjacent stand, the representative flagged me down and then further pressured me to leave my mobile number as well. The representative then didn’t believe that I didn’t have a WeChat account – I actually don’t use WeChat and never have.

Unfortunately, it’s the few overly-active people that can make approaching stands for more information an intimidating experience. After that, I seriously thought twice about walking into any stand I didn’t really want to be spammed by. To CeBIT’s credit, this behaviour was a lot more rampant in prior years, where indiscriminate badge scanning was more normal.

Conclusion

Another year has come, and another CeBIT has come and gone. As an engineer, I think attending events like this is key to being in touch with the trends in the rapidly changing field of technology and understanding what technology is out there to help you solve your problems. Taking a walk around is well worth your time, and that’s really all it costs. Many of the exhibitors are friendly, and if you’re a tech-head like myself, they will be able to give you the juicy tidbits you really crave.

Of course, registrations are already open for next year, and entry to the showfloor generally costs nothing if you register early. There’s likely to be something for everyone.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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