Archive for Mike

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.

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.

Scenerio 1: The Wayward Uncle

You have an uncle who is planning on retiring after a lengthy stay as an Army helicopter pilot.  His future lies in a cabin on some lake in the Pacific Northwest where he can fish all day.  He has some technical skills, being a pilot, but he doesn’t want things too complicated.

He has approached you about his extensive mp3 collection of music from the late 1960s.  The nearest department superstore (the only hardware source in the area) from his cabin is a 50 mile drive and he doesn’t enjoy making special trips for his computer.  He wants his music to be dependable and accessible at all times at the cabin, but he also doesn’t want Internet access.  The computer will be wired into his home speaker system so he can listen to it while entertaining and relaxing.  He wants to be able to pull up a media center screen and build easy playlists.

What do you suggest to him with regards to hardware and software?

Scenerios

I am going to add a new category today that needs your participation to thrive.  I often am approached both at and outside work to come up with solutions to a person’s individual technology needs.  These requests can be as simple as “How do I make my iPod do this?”  to “I am planning on creating an online form for my small business and I need to access my email all the time.  How do I accomplish this?”

This isn’t the situation where you say “I can tell you for fifty an hour.”  It’s more of a satisfaction of someone knowing they can count on me than anything else.  I have decided to add a category for these one-time, quick suggestions.

This is where you the reader, can make a small content contribution that will be greatly appreciated.  I will begin posting scenerios, some of them made up but thoughtfully crafted.  I don’t want this site turned into a help forum and as IT admins, I know we have a tendency to eat our young (a.k.a. RTFM, “Google it yourself”, etc.) when it comes to asking for advice, so I want to keep this fun, not to create a shortcut to an answer.  I will be taking your suggestions for topics at scenerios@itadmins.org.

Once a scenerio is up, the comments section is for your suggestions, questions, or discussion.  I myself will be posting comments to these, as I don’t want to play “supreme overlord” in this process.  Your comments can be as simple or complex as you want. Spend all their money. Spend their retirement.

Just remember that as with all things in life, there is a catch: Mikey just implemented digg-style ranking on the comments.  (Oh, you are quite welcome 😉 ) This will push the best comments to the top and focus on the most effective solutions.  If a majority of the voters want to go cheap on the solution, so be it.  If there is a consensus that Ubuntu has the best options, that bird is going to fly. If Windows Media Center (I know) is the best solution, let them eat cake.  What I am looking for is the best as determined by our expert panel, the readers.

Well, I will see how this goes.  I am going to come up with the first few scenerios and see what happens.  Please try to avoid making this an advertisement (Akismet is watching and Akismet loves you).  I will handle problems as they arise with this decision, but I will also maintain order.  Personal attacks against other posters are off limits.  Vote the comment down if you have a problem with it.  Lert’s make this fun.

Reconfiguring The Time Zone via The Terminal in Jaunty

I recently ran into an issue which was driving me crazy while using the thumbdrive version of Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope.  Every time I rebooted, I was losing the time zone configuration.  I would launch the Gnome Adjust System Date & Time applet, click the Set System Time button and be golden until I rebooted again or interestingly enough let the power management put the computer to sleep, at which point it would return to Universal Time (GMT).

When I ran the tzconfig utility on the command-line I received this message:

WARNING: the tzconfig command is deprecated, please use:
dpkg-reconfigure tzdata

Not a problem.  I Ran the reconfigure script:

sudo dpkg-reconfigure tzdata

Everything was perfect, even after reboot.

I know I am not using the thumbdrive edition as it was originally intended.  I am actually using it as a crutch while I figure out what cable I need to connect my Toshiba harddrive to the Acer.  The SSD finally gave out after prolonged reloads and I wanted enough space to have my entire audio collection on it.  I figure while I’m waiting for an answer to drop from the sky on that (hehe) I will try and hammer out some bugs on the thumbdrive edition of Ubuntu when using it for more than a demo environment.

What’s Left to Push Linux Into The Mainstream?

Linux has come a long way.  I am sitting here writing this on a netbook tricked out with the Alpha Release of Ubuntu Karmic Koala.  It’s amazing.  Ubuntu One is included by default, giving users an immediate opportunity to backup and sync all of their computers without batting an eye.  Empathy has finally replaced Pidgin as the default IM client, reducing the memory load drastically.  The interface has been tweaked and is much cleaner than previous versions.  And like little kids in the back seat of the family station wagon, we can finally start asking “Are we there yet?” and get the response “Almost”.

What still needs to happen?  How do we get this thing off the ground?  In my opinion, the answer is a lot simpler than most believe: Start using it, in public, with the lights on, in front of our families, without wincing when we explain it to people.  I am going to share some of my ideas of how to attain the mainstream below.

  1. Ditch the cost discussion.  Let this be a bonus for using Linux, not the determining factor.  Linux users have diverse political views and this is not about rainbows and flowers from a technical perspective.  This is about techs no longer having vague errors, spyware, and viruses to deal with.
  2. Do not explain that the cd-rom for their printer/scanner/toaster with all the fancy software that lets them burn designs in their toast isn’t necessary in a way that makes them feel stupid for buying the multifunction device.  Tell them in a way that explains the advantages and disadvantages of said device.
  3. Treat them like a business partner, not a student.  Show them that we aren’t going to loom over them, keep them from playing with scissors or running in the hall.  They now have the freedom to explore the computer without messing things up.
  4. Don’t talk trash about the competition unless they start it.  It was hard to believe how many applications and OS’s I bought over the years.  Some people are going to exhibit grief over the money they have wasted prior to this development model.  Empathize with them, sharing your own frustrations as you see fit, but don’t over do it.
  5. The “Try it for a month and you’ll never go back.” method does work, especially if the colleague is frustrated with their current computer situation.  Give them options, offer to help with the backup and install.

Linux needs ambassadors more than ever.  Long-winded speeches about freedom and TCO are not going to push as hard as a grassroots, tech savy group of people sharing the joys of being an everyday Linux user.

Advanced Bash-Scripting Guide

As a System Administrator, I am constantly looking for the ultimate commands to make my job easier.  Moving files around, renaming files for archival purposes, downloading updates, and building reports are a lot easier with scripting.  This is another document for the reference library, folks.


http://tldp.org/LDP/abs/html/

Advice Regarding Open Source Software

Open source software is constantly being put down for one reason or another by people with interests other than your own. Keep in mind, I am by no means a zealot and I reserve my Kumbayahs for the rare occasion that I can joke about them. I wear brand name shoes, still enjoy driving for no reason, and shop at retail stores that proabably oppress their labor in some way. I just wanted to take some time to express some of my opinions on a few of the excuses that have cropped up this year and lay them to waste before 2008.

Myth 1: Open source software is not secure because there aren’t as many people using it.

This notion made it to the top of my list because it bugs the hell out of me. Somehow, Joe Computer claims that because Windows has more users, it is more of a target. That being the case, if more people used open source, it would attract more bad guys and script kiddies. If Linux faced this kind of pressure, it would result in more viruses on Linux, right? Dead wrong! Let me dissect this one piece at a time. Windows has more users for now. That I can agree with, but the second part of this statement does not take into account that it is easier for a nefarious technologist to discover problems with proprietary software and keep them to themselves for fun and profit. Will the vendor discuss any problems with their product ahead of a patch? Never! That’s bad for their business model. The past few years have been riddled with incidents of what is known as zero-day exploits. With my sysadmin hat on, I like to explain these incidents as passing the time staring at virus scanners, hoping I unplugged it from the network in time. In simple terms, zero-day exploits mean we had no warning before the flaw was exploited. It defies the logic of open source to be exploited more regularly because the user base has grown. If a company / developer neglected its users, the users can move on to a product that is more secure.

Myth 2: Open source software is derived from communist/socialist/un-american thinking.

The GNU Public License was developed in the United States in a team led by an american lawyer and an american programmer. Red Hat, arguably the largest open source distributor is based in the Carolinas. Novell, a company in Utah, now owns SuSE Linux (Number 2 Linux distribution in the corporate world). BSD stands for Berkley Standard Distribution (That’s Berkley, California). Read the Cathedral and Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond before you make a decision on the political affiliations of programmers. It is sure to enlighten anyone on the fence about whether to use open source software.

Myth 3: There is no competition in open source software. Once you make a decision, you live and die by it.

There are more distributions than you could possibly imagine. There are hundreds of email clients, several web browsers, and more text editing options than anyone could possibly count. When someone comes up with a new idea, they post their source code and others build on it. Many programs are available across several distributions, making it very easy to replace your vendor for the OS and keep the programs. Several groups have nicknamed the open source method “co-opetition”.

Myth 4: This is an IT decision and it’s up to IT to figure this all out.

Computer users have a strong interest in influencing the decisions when it comes to software. Technology professionals can help in anyway they can, but keep in mind that they will not be the ones working day to day creating your data. We try every day to keep your computers running at their peak performance, but if you would prefer having a technician that can research and locate that last piece of the puzzle (the killer app for what you do) rather than someone who makes you put your work on hold while they have to cleanup the spyware and viruses, by all means, at least talk to them about Linux. Once you accept viruses and spyware are just a cost of doing business and that’s why someone’s paid to take care of the computers, you have accepted interruptions in your workflow, costs of safety precautions (antivirus/antispyware/time), and the stress related with losing data to malicious code.
I will be starting a forum soon entitled Technology Myths to accompany this post. Maybe, next year will be the “year of the desktop”.

Admin Tools Available on Ubuntu 7.10 (and other debian derivatives)

When I was strictly a windows admin, I spent a lot of time digging around try to find the perfect utilities to provide the little extras that make a system run properly. Things such as the AdminPak, almost anything on sysinternals, etc. made my job so much easier. I spent a little time digging through the Add/Remove Programs feature of Gutsy recently and am amazed at the magnitude of options for sys admins that are available now. These are the tools I have recently been working with in no particular order:

AptonCD

This tool will allow you to create and burn an iso of all the packages in your apt cache. The strongest benefit of being able to do this not waiting for updates to download on each machine. It is also helpful for any computers that may be isolated from the Internet for security reasons (i.e. the ones with personal files that should remain personal). While working in the corporate world, there was always that one machine hiding in a corner that no one else had updated in years. I was always the one crazy enough to touch it. Having a tool like this saves the time you would normally spend staring at a progress bar.

Disk Usage Analyzer

While harddrives seem to increase in capacity every few months, we can’t expect everyone to go out and grab a terrabyte all at once, right? Included by default in the past few Ubuntu releases, this application allows you to dig down into a harddrive and answer the all important question of where all that storage went that seemed like plenty 6 months ago. It works on pretty much anything mountable (including the thumbdrives that I constantly run out of room on).

Boot-up Manager

Remember how msconfig could turn a crawling 98 box into a racehorse again? Ubuntu has a tool called Boot-up Manager that provides similar capabilities. With it, you can control services and modify your startup and shutdown scripts. Very handy for experimenting with servers that don’t need to start all the time.

Gnome SSH Tunnel Manager

Tunnel, tunnel, tunnel. When in doubt as to your access, tunnel the traffic. gSTM allows you to store SSH tunnel configurations and enable these connections on the fly. This is ideal for remote administration of those insecure services we try our best to avoid making public (telnet, vnc, web, etc.).

Gmount-iso

Mounting an iso image has never been easier. Why would you mount an iso image? Because you can, of course!

Htop

The top command is very useful, but Htop adds a few features, such as a full path to the command that is running and graphical representations of resource usage.

GtkOrphan

Find all those extra packages that loom around after testing.

User Profile Editor

A tool to graphically configure all profile settings, with the ability to clone settings among users. This is an absolutely necessary tool for multi-user systems. Create a new profile and select Edit, an x-session pops up on the screen. Ideal for setting up menus for my daughter’s profile where she won;t need access to tools such as User Profile Editor.

In closing, I want to emphasize a piece of knowledge before I spend tons of time defending myself in comments. I know these packages exist for other distros. I know Gnome is responsible for some projects and most of the rest are sourceforge projects. I am just rather impressed by the recommendations my favorite distributor is choosing for their repositories lately.

P.S. The usual disclaimers about modding your own system apply. Do not complain if you some how break your system using these tools. Proceed with caution, sharp tools are these.