Archive for the ‘Only for the techy people’ Category

Ultimate home support system

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

When I last blogged about the Ultimate USB drive toolkit I mentioned that I would go further into why you’d need WinSCP.

Let’s start with a word that all techy types should know well: Server. If you don’t have one at home then you should think about it. I have a couple. Media servers for the TV’s, FTP, SSH, mail, video streaming, DNS, DHCP, etc. (A lot of acronyms there but I’ll get into them). Think of a server just like a waiter. You request something and it gives it to you. However, to really visualize it you have to think about having multiple waitors and they only serve one thing and do it well. Like sitting at your table and you request water and a waitor brings water. You flag down a different waitor for main dishes and he delivers that.

So, how does all this server stuff help you when you’re at a client’s house? That’s the cool part. I can get to my tools from
anywhere in the world that has an internet connection. You just need 2 basic services. HTTP (web server) and FTP (file transfer). You can do these with Windows or Mac but I’d suggest getting an old useless computer that has a network card and installing Linux on it. Almost all come with Apache for a http server and whatever ftp software you can select with your Linux distribution. (more…)

Your ultimate USB drive toolkit

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Being a computer guy I’m often asked by people to look at their computer and tell them what’s wrong or can I help them figure something out. For that reason, I’m doing this post on some real tech tricks to make you look like a star. All that from a USB drive.

The first thing you have to realize is that being prepared for anything is always your goal. I’m never unarmed. There are a couple things that are always on my person like most men: wallet, keys, watch, cell phone, and most times my PDA (an HP IPAQ) . Turning any of these items into multipurpose tools makes you ready for anything. Women can of course get more mileage out of this because they carry a purse. Now, for the really techy, I will continue with a blog post on the ultimate home support system because there are a lot of times I connect to my systems at home from a client’s site. I put a USB stick on my keyring that has a ton of goodies as well as my IPAQ. Today we’ll focus on the USB stick.

For the quick and easy route I’d suggest a simple USB stick (doesn’t have to be U3) but you want it to 1 gig or bigger. This will work on a drive as small as 128mb but I always like to keep extra space on the drive in case I need to copy a lot of files over to it for backup purposes. The last thing you want to do with a machine that is on it’s last leg is turn it off and hope it comes back on.

For a long time now I’d been downloading applications individually and copying them to the drive. You’re still going to install some extra ones to the drive but first download this handy set of tools: PCRepairsystem.zip . It’s a fabulous set of tools from the site Daily Cup of Tech. It’s a zip file that you just download and extract to your USB drive. Pull out your drive and stick it back in and you’re done! Well, almost done. When you put it in it puts a little coffee bean next to your computer’s clock on the task bar. Right clicking on that clock brings up a list of programs that do everything from drive repair to rootkit revealers to CD burning. These will serve you well. Get to know what each program does and you have most everything you need.

Next make a visit to www.portableapps.com. This site is full of applications that you may already be using all the time except these are made to run straight from a USB drive. Believe me, having access to a computer and not having administrative rights can totally shut you down because you can’t just download and install the applications you wanted until this.

Take a look around and get what you like. These are some of the ones that I put on my stick and the reasons why.

Firefox: Always want a fully capable web browser.
Clamwin: To be able to walk up and scan a computer for virus’ is absolutely essential.
WinSCP: If you have access to another machine with a secure connection you can FTP or SSH to and from it. Openoffice: A full Microsoft Office competitor on a USB stick? You can’t beat that.
VLC: Will view any video or play any audio.
Gimp: A Photoshop like program. You may need to resize or edit photos or something for someone.

Now with all of these you have to save the file to your desktop then install them and give your USB drive letter in the install path. For example, where it says “Install path: \openoffice” put H: (or whatever your drive’s letter is) in front to make it H:\openoffice.

In closing, I’d suggest you open every program you put on your USB drive before leaving home. The last thing you want to do is be surprised while you’re on location. A good example of this is that the first time you run Clamwin it wants to download the virus database. Assuming you’re at a site with dialup or no internet on the machine you’ve just wasted a ton of time or won’t even be able to fix the problem.

Also, the program SIW on the PCRepairkit should be your first stop when looking at a system. It will tell you everything about the machine. Save this to your USB stick. Should anything happen to the computer you know what it had before.

That’s it! Go out there and make the world a better place with safe computing.

Oh, and just for your convenience, keep some music, podcasts, or things to read on your USB stick. You might get stuck somewhere for a long time. No need to be bored while a virus scan or drive repair runs.  I also put my resume on the drive.  As a consultant you have this time as a window of opportunity if someone really likes you and may have a big project coming up.

Howto cluster like a pro!

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

As a consultant I’ve been really diving deep into an industry hot topic: Clustering. It seems to be the big topic for so many companies. Hi availability need not be an issue for you ever again. Here’s the simple way you can scale like the big boys do it. The long and short of it are simple. You need “Heartbeat.”

No, I don’t mean a biological function I mean Heartbeat from the Linux-HA project. Heartbeat is a service for Linux systems that will make a process highly available. This way if the main machine that is servicing clients goes down then you’ll have another that will take it’s place without anyone noticing.

Oddly enough, there seem to not be enough resources on the internet to help people with this subject. However, to get started there are so few resources to learn with. I actually wanted to go a little deeper in my own knowledge of the subject but couldn’t find many books and even fewer websites. What is this world coming to when I can’t find websites to teach me all the information I needed. The thing is… I looked everywhere but the source. The Linux-HA website. There’s a screencast video link here. It’s about 10 minutes and the program designer shows how to make a basic cluster. You can even go deeper with more examples on the site that teach you how to cluster different programs.

Just as a note from me, if you are truly considering learning all it takes to make your own cluster please consider learning more about high availability. The core to high availability is redundancy. Make sure that you have all of your bases covered. Have no single points of failure. Redundant hard disks (RAID), power, internet, and network links.

By the way, I had started this article a little while ago and noticed a great link on Howtoforge that really pulls this together quickly and in one page.

Hope these are very useful to you.

Linux from Scratch: Everything but the flour and butter

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

There are so many people out there that hear about Ubuntu, Redhat, or Suse (more for my European friends) and really want get started in it. This blog post is NOT for you. I will have more for you though because I really want to start a video podcast for you.

If you know a little bit about Linux or are a Linux admin then this is a good step for you. I’ve been using Linux for about 13 years now and I still have a lot more to learn. This is the case for all operating systems and computer systems. There is always more to learn. I’ve been a little consumed lately with tinkering for some reason. I’ve been doing a lot of wiring and building things out of old computers I have laying around. I’m doing it for no other reason than “Why not?”

For the Linux tinkerer I have the perfect site for you. Linux from Scratch. It’s a project that I’ve been meaning to do for years. What it is is a online book that will walk you through building a Linux system completely from scratch. Oddly enough I love cookies and buy chocolate chip cookies all the time. Long time when I was in high school I downloaded a cookie recipe off a bulletin board (yes, I’m old in computer years) and made the best cookies ever. Well, I equate this to Linux from Scratch. I may end up doing it just like the cookies. I made a cookie and it was good but later on I decided to tweak the recipe and make a cookie I liked better.

This is not a project for the faint of heart I’ve read but it really connects the dots in the knowledge you have about a Unix system. I’ve actually got to make sure I do a little bit from time to time (all in a virtual machine) because my workload for my business is getting heavier.

I’m going to categorize this for Linux people but I would say it’s not just for Linux/Unix (and Mac since it’s a BSD Unix) people because when you know the history of how computer systems came to being a lot of this is the core of how other systems like Windows, Beos, etc.

Try it and tell me your results or your progress. Maybe we can do it at the same time like jogging partners. You may also get interested in some other projects like “Realtime Linux” and “Embedded Linux” which are other projects that are used for specific things.

I’d say good luck but luck will have nothing to do with it.  You can do anything you set your mind to.

Plate spinning 101 for Admins

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

plates_phone_cropped.jpg

The life of a technical administrator of any type can really be a circus act. I usually equate it to the plate spinner. You know the guy. He has all these plates he puts on a sticks and has to keep each plate spinning as he’s putting more plates on other sticks to spin. The coolest part of the act isn’t spinning a plate on a stick. The coolest part is putting more and more plates on sticks and constantly going back to each one every couple seconds in order to keep it spinning.

All other departments need to be honest with themselves. The computer guy is expected to know everything possible. I don’t think it’s just me but at most of the companies I’ve worked at I can do almost everyone’s job in the building. I once worked at a production company where I literally did every person’s job in the company at least once. We have to understand a lot about accounting to help the accountants achieve their goals, HR, specialty areas like video/audio production, sales, engineering and so much more. You name your companies departments and you touch them all. Add all these plates to your performance. As crazy as it gets I’ve got to say I do love it but it comes with it’s setbacks. Today I had one of those setbacks.

It is said that Albert Einstein didn’t even know his own phone number by heart. The reason for this was the fact that it was knowledge that was so easily accessible. He said why would he put that kind of information in his head when he could just grab the white pages or a phone book in his house. This is how you will have to treat some things. That’s why a trusty internet connection and Google should be your best friends. Some answers are just seconds away. I never remember the color configuration for crimping a crossover cable because I can just look it up and I don’t do it often.

The backfire that I faced today was that I realized that I turned my back for a second and some plates fell. In particular I was put on the spot with a test on MySQL and at another time in the same day questions about Cisco. Now I actually went and took some classes on these two things years ago and have used them ever since.

All of a sudden, my whole sense of self-worth went right out the window. Years of learning. All the systems I’d administered or installed in the past out the window. All my value reduced to minutes before I’m considered a rookie.

Here’s the lesson. Of course you will have to let some of your plates just spin. It’s always easy being the one or two trick pony but admins are more than that. Maybe one or two plates will have to fall. You can always get new ones (i.e. pick up the skills again). The method to your madness has to be spinning the plates that are wobbling in the back. Those are the skills that you don’t use on a daily basis but read blogs and get podcasts that may mention things you may want to keep up to date on.

My dad’s solution is a little different and I may really need to adopt it. He said,”At a certain level don’t let anybody ever test you. There’s nothing to be gained only image to be lost.”

The perfect unattended Windows install

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Let me just start by saying that I don’t read licenses on different things that much so I want you to be forewarned that you should check on the legality of doing this but it’s worked for me.

My issue is that I encounter a lot of computers that I need to reinstall Windows on. The thing is, I have this down to a science (almost) with Linux (read my blog post on PXE) but I end up having a lot of people that need it for Windows. I totally HATE installing Windows. It’s the most boring thing that I ever have to do. I have to wait a long time and have to keep going back to see if it’s asking me a question. I really hate that because I’m a serious multitasker. I want to go through as much configuration as possible before hand and come back and it’s done. Ready to use. Well, here’s my ideas for a Windows computer install.

(more…)

Stallman: The Mad scientist of free software

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Allow me to rant a bit and give my take on what is a big issue in the free and open source community. I’m not one that is big on licensing issues and the like. So the Gnu Public License (GPL) that is the foundation of Linux and many other open source software is the last good thing the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has really contributed. I could definitely be wrong on this and am open to be corrected however, at every convention I stop at their table and try to figure out what their significant purpose is to no avail.

p2270168.jpg

What I have figured out is the core of the problem. At the beginning of this year I went to a lecture that Richard Stallman (the head of the FSF and core original contributor to Linux) gave. First let me declare that this guy is the modern day mad scientist. Extremely smart and extremely nuts. It was no secret to the audience of mostly college students, due to the venue being USC, that this man lacked etiquette and hygiene awareness. However, a brief exclamation of why he believed Linux should be called GNU Linux cleared so much up for me. I’ll explain.

In the beginning, Stallman had the idea of free software and started programming all the parts of a clone of Unix. It was sheer brilliance and a lot of time spent coming up with all the programs that surrounded the brain of the operating system. The kernel. Meanwhile, over in Stockholm Sweden Linus Torvalds was creating the kernel based off the Unix variant Minix. Just like a Reese’s pieces commercial Linus’ chocolate ended up in Stallman’s peanut butter.

Which is more important to a Reese’s? The chocolate or the Peanut butter? It’s a trick question because they both are equally important. However, now imagine if chocolate and peanut butter had to name the product of their union. This is where Stallman’s issue resides. Linus TorvaldsLinux was named by Linus Torvalds’ friends and followers. It’s the engine of the car they felt. Also, I regrettably must say, with the exception of Emacs (which I don’t even use because of VI) all the software would have logically been created to mimic Unix’s version like they are now.

It’s a regrettable situation because I must say that I’ve personally me Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman briefly. I liken the too to Dr. Frankenstein and Alexander Graham Bell. They were both brilliant minds (even though one’s mainly fictitious) but Torvalds was hard working reluctantly social Bell while Stallman was the massively confident mad scientist with little social empathy. In the end Stallman does have an understandable right to believe that GNU should be said before Linux but after a certain point does it really matter? To build a company of followers that faithfully extol your greatness but lack a good reason behind their efforts is now pure vanity that impedes progress.  Now to make himself relevant again he’s forcing GPL 3 on the masses.

Poor Stallman.  Doesn’t he realize that Dr. Frankenstien’s ego is what was his ultimate demise?  Go all ye Linux fans and shout Richard Stallman’s accomplishments from the rooftops.  You made this all possible in it’s current state. Now, let’s just get our heads back into the code and not the semantics of licenses or exercises in vanity.

Family VPN

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

If you’ve been reading about my “Linux for your Grandmother” post and “Macbook in my house…” you’ll know that my family is getting more and more wireless. Well, my brother just called me and told me he got two new laptops. He wants me to set up his wifi router for him and his family to be secure. This came right on time because of the new project I’ve given myself. A family wide VPN.

Just think about it. Within 10 minutes of my house in multiple directions are both of my brothers’ houses, my sister, and my mom’s house. Each house with different resources like printers, faxes, photo directories, etc. Imagine if you created a VPN between all these houses. You could share your resources plus have secure wifi in different areas in case you had to stop and get something that you know you scanned or typed on your server at home.

I’m sure this will make for more laptops at the table at Thanksgiving but I’m sure it’ll make it easier to email “Pass the turkey” instead of yelling it across the table.

Linux for your grandmother?

Friday, August 31st, 2007

There have been many doubts about Linux on the desktop for some time now. I have proved that it is viable in my own household. Everybody in my house (including the 5 year old little girl) is totally cross platform. Everyone uses Windows, Linux, and to a smaller degree Mac. The difference for the average user is so minimal with just a little bit of training.

Now on the the newest adventure in Linux adoption. My mother and grandmother. I’ve had a computer in my mother’s house for years but can barely get her to use it. Now that she just retired she wants to know what all her friends know. So, she wants a couple of training lessons on it. My grandmother (at 90 years old) has been wanting her own since my mom wouln’t let her touch the computer they have for fear it might break doing anything.

(more…)

PXE for the masses

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

I was curious a while back after looking at my computer boot up to see it trying to get information on how to boot from the network using PXE. This wasn’t a good time of course because what was happening to the computer was an absence of a hard disk made it go through the order of places to find an operating system and when it came up empty it went to a network boot.

The problem was minor because in building the computer I hadn’t yet plugged up the hard disk but this gave me an idea. What neat tricks could I make a computer do if I could just get it to boot up and get its operating system. Needless to say I did a lot of internet searching and found bits and pieces of how to netboot the computer from my server(a good one was https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation/WindowsServerNetboot). Needless to say that the floodgates are open.

I got it to work and now I’m thinking of all the things I can do. Entering a machine’s MAC address into my dhcp.conf file can make it boot off of my server and possibly do all kinds of things. I heard of one guy who had lots of Windows computers to install or repair. He had a computer boot up and just start installing Windows on the hard drive. That’s a cool feature for those who have to setup clusters, classrooms, or repair pc’s.

zonbox.jpgMy current obsession is a classroom made purely out of little diskless PC’s. The company Zonbu has a cool one though that they’re selling as a service that they remotely support and put applications on. I’ll definitely keep you posted on any cool ideas I come up with for it.