Questions and Answers

I’ve added a Questions and Answers section at http://itadmins.org/qa . Please feel free to post your IT related questions, whether you are looking for advice on a tough job or just have a tech topic you were always curious about. As always, please be courteous to your fellow users!

Establishing the Amazon Kindle as a Tool

The Amazon Kindle is a very practical device, focusing primarily on electronic reader issues such as battery life, text formatting, and of course the well marketed fact that it is glare resistant. I’ve opened a new category on itadmins.org for this device to highlight some of the uses that make it more of a tool than a toy with a color screen that does everything a computer does.

The biggest problem when a device goes mainstream is determining where it fits into your life. First off, don’t compare it to the Apple iPad. It is not for entertainment unless you find entertainment in literature, which some people still do. The Kindle was developed to distribute and consume documents, not to update your status, not to view pictures of your friend’s kids, and not to keep up with the Joneses. It is a tool to disseminate knowledge and information in a readable way, much like books. Let me ask you this: Can a calculator do any of these things?

With that said, the Kindle does its job beautifully. I spend a lot of time reading on it, whether to my daughter, or on my own. This is where the device excels.

You no longer have to go to the bookstore (Time Saving)

There are some people that enjoy perusing a bookstore for hours on end to find that one special book that meets their needs. I am not one of them. The more specific your desired knowledge in a brick and mortar, the harder it becomes to find exactly what you want or need. I’ve spent countless hours traveling from store to store looking for specific titles that bookstores do not carry because I’ve dug too deep. I read some pretty technical books that are borderline manuals. This type of specific need is not cost effective for a store to market to when the latest 8 dollar paperback sells a million copies. With the Kindle, I can search, or find the manual online and push it over Whispernet. This makes it easier for the store and myself.

Document distribution

This is an area that still needs to be developed to its full potential, but I am going to start looking for the code to do so. What I want is the ability to push reports about my home network automatically to my kindle every morning to know what is going on with it. If I am running out of space because I uploaded too many photos, I want to know. I want a weather report specific to my home pushed to my Kindle every morning. I want to know if the batteries are low in my camera and cell phone before I leave the house in the morning. To summarize, I want an electronic nag to prevent the surprises that often occur when you start using electronics in your home.

Reading

I am a reader of Historical literature. I love learning about Ireland, a place I would like to visit sometime. I read The Magic Treehouse to my child. She loves it, despite the fact that TV doesn’t think History is cool enough for kids. Go figure, use a device for its original purpose and you get enjoyment out of it. This is something I feel has been lost in our modern days of mods, hacks, and apps.

I am going to continue to develop this category with information about using the Kindle for everyday purposes, but I will try to remain practical and within the needs it was targeted for.

IRC is back online!

I registered #itadmins on freenode.net for discussions about tech realted items. It will serve it’s purpose very soon. Check back often!

FCC Versus Comcast (i.e. Take that, Comcast, Part 2)

I am amazed at the semantics as much as everyone else.  The FCC order blocking traffic shaping has been overturned.    Does this mark the end of Net Neutrallity? Maybe.  In a statement on Broadband.gov ,  Austin Schlick, General Councel for the FCC, is focused on moving forward with funding broadband in rural areas, while according to RadioInk Magazine, Commissioner Michael Copps may be considering classifying Internet access a telecom service.  This would add very aggressive regulations and possibly a Universal Access Fee, in my opinion.  I think this may be a way to fund the Broadband initiatives, but I have mixed feelings on it.  Comcast has stated that they will continue to cooperate with FCC initiatives, which is a plus for everyone.

dmidecode

DMIDECODE(8)                                                      DMIDECODE(8)

NAME
dmidecode – DMI table decoder

SYNOPSIS
dmidecode [OPTIONS]

DESCRIPTION
dmidecode  is a tool for dumping a computer’s DMI (some say SMBIOS) table contents in a human-readable format. This table contains a descrip
tion  of  the  system’s  hardware  components,  as well as other useful
pieces of information such as serial numbers and BIOS revision.  Thanks
to  this  table,  you  can  retrieve this information without having to
probe for the actual hardware.  While this is a good point in terms  of
report  speed  and  safeness, this also makes the presented information
possibly unreliable.

The DMI table doesn’t only describe what the system is  currently  made
of,  it  also  can  report the possible evolutions (such as the fastest
supported CPU or the maximal amount of memory supported).

SMBIOS stands for System Management BIOS, while DMI stands for  Desktop
Management  Interface. Both standards are tightly related and developed
by the DMTF (Desktop Management Task Force).

As you run it, dmidecode will try to locate the DMI table. If  it  suc
ceeds, it will then parse this table and display a list of records like
this one:

Handle 0x0002, DMI type 2, 8 bytes.  Base Board Information
Manufacturer: Intel
Product Name: C440GX+
Version: 727281-001
Serial Number: INCY92700942

Each record has:

A handle. This is a unique identifier, which allows records to refer
ence  each  other.  For  example, processor records usually reference
cache memory records using their handles.

A type. The SMBIOS specification defines different types of  elements
a  computer  can  be  made  of. In this example, the type is 2, which
means that the record contains “Base Board Information”.

A size. Each record has a 4-byte header (2 for the handle, 1 for  the
type,  1  for  the  size),  the rest is used by the record data. This
value doesn’t take text strings into account (these are placed at the
end of the record), so the actual length of the record may be (and is
often) greater than the displayed value.

Decoded values. The information presented of course  depends  on  the
type of record. Here, we learn about the board’s manufacturer, model,
version and serial number.

OPTIONS
-d, –dev-mem FILE
Read memory from device FILE (default: /dev/mem)

-q, –quiet
Be less verbose. Unknown, inactive and OEM-specific entries  are
not displayed. Meta-data and handle references are hidden. Mutu
ally exclusive with –dump.

-s, –string KEYWORD
Only display the value of the DMI string identified by  KEYWORD.
KEYWORD  must be a keyword from the following list: bios-vendor,
bios-version,  bios-release-date,  system-manufacturer,  system-
product-name, system-version, system-serial-number, system-uuid,
baseboard-manufacturer,  baseboard-product-name,  baseboard-ver
sion, baseboard-serial-number, baseboard-asset-tag, chassis-man
ufacturer, chassis-type, chassis-version, chassis-serial-number,
chassis-asset-tag,   processor-family,   processor-manufacturer,
processor-version,  processor-frequency.   Each  keyword  corre
sponds  to a given DMI type and a given offset within this entry
type.  Not all strings may be meaningful or even defined on  all
systems.  Some  keywords may return more than one result on some
systems (e.g.  processor-version on a  multi-processor  system).
If  KEYWORD  is  not  provided or not valid, a list of all valid
keywords is printed and dmidecode exits  with  an  error.   This
option  cannot  be  used  more  than  once, and implies –quiet.
Mutually exclusive with –type and –dump.

-t, –type TYPE
Only display the entries of type TYPE. TYPE can be either a  DMI
type  number,  or  a  comma-separated list of type numbers, or a
keyword from the following list: bios, system, baseboard,  chas
sis, processor, memory, cache, connector, slot. Refer to the DMI
TYPES section below for details.  If this option  is  used  more
than once, the set of displayed entries will be the union of all
the given types.  If TYPE is not provided or not valid,  a  list
of  all  valid  keywords  is printed and dmidecode exits with an
error.  Mutually exclusive with –string.

-u, –dump
Do not decode the entries, dump their  contents  as  hexadecimal
instead.   Note that this is still a text output, no binary data
will be thrown upon you. The strings attached to each entry  are
displayed  as  both hexadecimal and ASCII. This option is mainly
useful for  debugging.   Mutually  exclusive  with  –quiet  and
–string.

-h, –help
Display usage information and exit

-V, –version
Display the version and exit

DMI TYPES
The SMBIOS specification defines the following DMI types:

Type   Information

0   BIOS
1   System
2   Base Board
3   Chassis
4   Processor
5   Memory Controller
6   Memory Module
7   Cache
8   Port Connector
9   System Slots
10   On Board Devices
11   OEM Strings
12   System Configuration Options
13   BIOS Language
14   Group Associations
15   System Event Log
16   Physical Memory Array
17   Memory Device
18   32-bit Memory Error
19   Memory Array Mapped Address
20   Memory Device Mapped Address
21   Built-in Pointing Device
22   Portable Battery
23   System Reset
24   Hardware Security
25   System Power Controls
26   Voltage Probe
27   Cooling Device
28   Temperature Probe
29   Electrical Current Probe
30   Out-of-band Remote Access
31   Boot Integrity Services
32   System Boot
33   64-bit Memory Error
34   Management Device
35   Management Device Component
36   Management Device Threshold Data
37   Memory Channel
38   IPMI Device
39   Power Supply

Additionally,  type 126 is used for disabled entries and type 127 is an
end-of-table marker. Types  128  to  255  are  for  OEM-specific  data.
dmidecode will display these entries by default, but it can only decode
them when the vendors have contributed documentation or code for them.

Keywords can be used instead of type numbers with –type.  Each keyword
is equivalent to a list of type numbers:

Keyword     Types

bios        0, 13
system      1, 12, 15, 23, 32
baseboard   2, 10
chassis     3
processor   4
memory      5, 6, 16, 17
cache       7
connector   8
slot        9

Keywords  are  matched  case-insensitively. The following command lines
are equivalent:

dmidecode –type 0 –type 13

dmidecode –type 0,13

dmidecode –type bios

dmidecode –type BIOS

FILES
/dev/mem

BUGS
More often than not, information contained in the DMI tables is inaccu
rate, incomplete or simply wrong.

AUTHORS
Alan Cox, Jean Delvare

SEE ALSO
biosdecode(8), mem(4), ownership(8), vpddecode(8)

dmidecode                        February 2007                    DMIDECODE(8)

PXE Environments

Setting up PXE options on your network can be an ideal choice if you depend on iso files and spend a lot of time testing operating systems.  I recently decided to do this on my home network to eliminate the clutter of burning a ton of CDs.  This was my logic:

Environmental Benefits

Is this a green solution? It can be if you take into consideration of adding smaller, low-power devices to your network instead of full-blown computers.   Two companies I can recommend for the clients are Diskless Workstations and devonIT.  The noise reduction factors switching to diskless clients can be amazing.  Another option that may have some green factor to it is using that older machine that is sitting in your basement or garage (we all have them) instead of throwing it away.  Keep an eye on power consumption if you choose to use older equipment, though.

Centralization Benefits

If you have several independent computers, problems quickly develop.  Files become scattered over every machine you touch.  Where was that brilliant resume you sent out last month that got such positive response?  These random files require an intensely complex backup routine and will be difficult to track.  The problem of having different versions of files also comes into play.  By keeping it all on one server, you are making things much simpler.

Time Benefits

You spend what seems like countless hours updating your systems with the same fixes over and over if you don’t “go thin”.  While it is commendable to treat each system with individual attention and know each system, do you really want to spend all your free time updating? This goes along the lines of centralization, but there is a time benefit when you have only one server to upgrade.

Cost Benefits

Thin Clients are much cheaper.  You can expect approximately 350-500 dollars per machine for decent hardware.  Configured correctly, the performance of these machines can rival high-end $1000+computers.  Touching back on the centralization, some cloud computing backup providers and backup application vendors charge you per computer.  It makes so much more sense to have one backup target.

These are the benefits that have made me come to the conclusion to create a PXE environment.  I will, of course, move slowly and make sure all the steps are done properly, but the advantages have out weighed other factors at this point.

Grappling for a Logo

I’ve been wrestling with a logo for itadmins.org for a long time.  I want something that reflects technology, but isn’t too cheesy.  These are a couple models I came up with, but I am still not completely satisfied with them.  If anyone can offer some insight, it would be much appreciated.

itadmins_logo

Logo 1: I want to avoid the whole Matrix clone thing, but the Matrix was cool...

itadmins_logo2

Logo 2: Trying to keep it simple with this one. We all know how we love our acronymns.

Documentation that always comes in handy

During the course of my ten year career as a technologist, I have come across several sites that help me with day to day problems, expand my knowledge beyond studies, and make the information overload seem a little more structured.  Rather than “become the best Googler” it’s sometimes better to be a little more selective in your reference materials.  This is a list of sites I have used hundreds of times in the past.

IANA Port Assignment Numbers

During a traffic audit, it becomes very critical to know exactly what you are looking at.  I often refer to this document.  A very important consideration to those new to the field:  IANA does not enforce these assignments.  They are only here to be the official registry.  Just because you see a specific port being used, doesn’t absolutley mean that port is carrying it’s assigned traffic.  Worms will often use well-known ports to disguise themselves.  Rule of thumb: always analyze the packets, don’t just assume based on the port.

Ubuntu Forums

The Ubuntu Forums are very valuable as a reference tool.  It always helps to read an entire thread before implementing things, due to the assistanceit provides being user-generated content.  It saved numerous reinstalls when I first started using Ubuntu.

Cisco Product Documentation

When I went searching for this site, I was guided to a link informing me that all documentation would be merged to the support site.  Clicking on that link, directed me to a redirect to the “New” support site. (kind of Monty Python-ish, I know).  Regardless of where it is and what it is called, Cisco has stellar documentation for IOS and all of their products online for brushing up on your skills.

Linux Forums

This is the place I go as a darkhorse search of last result for information about open source troubleshooting.  It’s not due to a lack of information or quality.  Linux Forums has been around for 10+ years and I remember using it intensly to learn about Red Hat and Mandrake Linux.  It is still a high traffic site and if I have a question regarding RPM-based distributions, I will still frequent it.  The usual warning about reading an entire thread applies here as well.  Become an expert, not just someone looking for a quick fix.

Debian Documentation

The name says it all with this one.  Debian has a strong library of resources to learn how to implement solutions and resolve problems in this distribution.

Internic Whois

This is the default place I look for domain owner information.  It is always handy to have access to this in a situation where your customers are using third party services that provide specialized solutions.

Do you have any suggestions for any other sites that help make your day as an IT Admin?  Please feel free to suggest your own favorites in the comments section.

Remaining Analytical: Avoiding the pitfalls of feature-driven decisions

Information Technology is Science, a very practical science at that.  We are bombarded everyday with “Hey, look at what this does!”.  The coolness factor can be a blessing and a curse in technology.  We want to constantly push forward what our colleagues are capable of.  How do we recommend products and peak the interest of our customers and clients without bombarding them with features?

Results oriented methodology is taking over our small little world.  Users and managers are no longer amazed by bells and whistles. They need technology, but not in the feature-driven approach that worked ten years ago.  Potential of a product is not as important as fullfilling immediate needs.  The features have to take care of everyday issues, not something they will experience when they are the big dog on the block.  Reporting is very important.  Success of products from salesforce.com, Siebel, Remedy, and Oracle have paved the way for a great deal of accountability with regards to the employee-employer relationship and the Information Technology department is no longer immune.  Utilization is a strong requirement with limited budgets.

What can be done to adjust to the cycle we are currently in?  There are many ways to thrive.

  • Remain focused on your client’s needs. The sharper the image you have in your mind the better.  Don’t make guesses regarding what will help day to day. Learn about problems, document them and focus on solutions that will address immediate needs.
  • Document everything:  Keep personal records of what you accomplish and notice in your day to day interactions.  This is not to share with others, but to research and revisit as discussions arise.
  • Do NOT under any circumstances suggest products that do not meet the needs of a project and proceed to belittle the problems management is concerned about.  The problem with saying “My way or the highway!” is there are so many choices of highway right now.
  • Know that like any other economic cycle, this will eventually give way to brighter days.  This is very important with regards to attitude.  The last thing any organization wants or needs right now is a grumpy technologist.
  • Focus on sustainability and making things run to their full potential.

With these thoughts in mind, remaining analytical will be a lot easier.  After all, we are more scientist than salesperson.

The Road Towards Good Backups: Mile One

One of the most critical concepts in maintaining business continuity is data organization.  Any company, client, or even home user, has to organize their data in such a way that they know where the “important stuff” is and also have access to that one @#$%! file that they know they will need months from now.  Ideally, the less backup targets you have, the better.  This reduces the licensing costs to produce a stellar backup and disaster recovery can devour your entire IT budget if you are not cautious.

A heart-to-heart may be needed with management and ultimately the people you support.  Environments that have a long standing history of doing it themselves will have a hard time with being told how and where to save their files, and there will even be some people that have a workable system.  The key is to get as many people on board as possible.  Let them participate in the filing system planning to prove to them you have their and the company’s needs in mind. When you are new to a network, always be sure to perform a rundown of all user accounts to make sure all home drives have been provided and are mapped correctly.  The last thing you want is to have your customers question sincerity because they are feeling overlooked.

Running a quick check of applications running on the network and the drawbacks of forcing that data onto a shared drive can also reduce the number of backup targets.

The solution in regards to data consolidation will vary based on your environment and this makes complete sense.  Each organization will have it’s individual needs, but it is very important to address this issue to ensure a cost effective backup system.