Friday, July 31, 2009

Ways to Learn Systems Administration

Suppose, as an accidental systems administrator, you realize that you have a lot to learn.  For instance, in my case, I hadn’t managed a network in a while when I started managing this network, and in particular, the server software was unfamiliar.


I actually sat down and made a list of what I realized I didn’t know.  Of course, there were lots of other things I didn’t know – but I couldn’t list those, could I?   The things I didn’t know fell into two groups:  things about our own network that ought to be documented somewhere, and general knowledge of the software and systems.


See What You’ve Got:  Regarding our own network, I asked around and discovered that someone had a computer inventory.  It was just for fixed assets, but by adding a little additional information, it was a great start.  I snooped in cupboards, closets and drawers, and I got everyone to turn in the software disks that they were hoarding.  I created an updated inventory with such useful things as service tags, and I sorted through all the software disks to see what we had.  Getting people to cooperate with this was a gradual process, but most people are more than happy to relinquish their private CDs and information as they realize that you will take good care of their user needs.


Finally, I created one updated, decent inventory and built essential documentation, like our server settings.


Take Classes:  I took classes, both at a college and from a popular business seminar company.


Find a Mentor:  I have several people who help me when I have questions.  I work at a nonprofit and I pay attention to what our volunteers do in their careers, then I make a point of getting to know some individuals who like to help our organization and give good, sensible advice.  These folks are helpful and constructive, and they challenge me to stretch and learn.  A great mentor always has the attitude that you can learn to do it – he doesn’t do it for you, but he shows you what to look for and suggests ways you can improve.


I am picky about whose advice I seek, avoiding people who merely want to criticize or impress.  Remember the old saying, “Real men don’t eat quiche”?  Well, my opinion is that real a man eats what he chooses to eat and doesn’t worry about his manly image! Correspondingly, it appears to me that truly smart systems people don’t need to tell everyone how smart they are all the time or tear anybody else down.


One of the fabulous things about a mentor, who’ll find time for you when the system’s down and your head is starting to ache, is he’ll look at your situation with fresh objectivity, and he’ll make great suggestions that didn’t occur to you.  He might run through some troubleshooting steps, and maybe there’s something you forgot to do because of the distractions that come with an outage. 


Read Books:  I have purchased some reference books that I need frequently and I keep those at hand.  I have a limited tolerance for reading documentation (sigh) but find that, by reading a little every day, I can build some genuine education. 


Learn the Software:  When somebody asks me a software question, and I don’t know the answer, I like to go to my desk and work with it until I find the answer, then give it to the user (unless I’m madly busy).  Reading the help screens and clicking around is a bit boring, but over the long haul it builds knowledge and adds value to my services.  Generally, if one user has an issue with the software, it’s bothering other people, too.  When the next person asks the question, I can help them quickly.


Subscribe to Tech Mags:  Lots of great free stuff there, and besides, you can get a lot of this online now.


Call the Manufacturer:  Sometimes this is absolutely the last thing I want to do.  I want to throw on a band-aid and move on.  However, the things I call about are usually known issues and the support people will tell me very quickly what software to uninstall, which driver to update, etc.


Use the Internet:  I join online groups and list-serves.  I run Google searches all the time.  I read user forums.  I read lots of everyday user product reviews before I buy equipment. 


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Network Loop

I had my first "network loop" last week. Apparently this is a miserable problem for many a systems administrator, but it didn't happen to me, until now, anyway. Why? Well, we didn't have any wireless routers at our office until recently.

Someone came in and had a poor connection using wireless, so plugged in an ethernet wire. At that point, the laptop is connected to the network in two ways, forming a loop, along which packets of data traffic ran in circles and made our lovely little network into one big traffic jam.

I have told my notebook users that they must use only one connection - wireless or wired, but not two!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

HDMI to DVI? to VGA?

HDMI or High Definition Multimedia Interface, developed to transmit high-quality sound and picture over one cable, has rapidly become the standard for digital TVs. Brand-new TVs and home theater components usually have HDMI – but since the technology is so new, you probably own electronic audio/video gadgets that don’t have it.
Going from the present back, back in time: HDMI is digital. DVI is sort of a compromise. VGA is analog. (And if, like me, you remember black-and-white TV and three channels, you are a dinosaur. Hold the HDMI cable in your hand and repeat after me, “Wow. High definition video and eight channels of audio transmitted on this little cable.”)
Of course you want to use your old equipment with your new equipment.
I needed to use HDMI output from a new computer to run a projector, which had only VGA and DVI inputs. This one was easy – there’s a cable you can buy which goes from HDMI to DVI. That gets you a picture with DVI.
On the other hand, if I want to use a projector, monitor, or television that only has VGA, there’s a much bigger gap to bridge. I have a humongous high-def projection television in my family room with only VGA input. An ordinary converter cable won’t work.
The problem here is that HDMI includes a technology called HDCP, High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection. This security scheme (which is either a copy protection strategy or simply to ensure high-quality content, a matter of opinion) uses special information that gets passed between the sending device and the receiving device. If the video-sending, HDMI equipped gadget doesn’t receive that signal, all you’ll get for your trouble is a black screen on your television, monitor, or projector. To send pictures from HDMI to your VGA equipment, you need a special powered converter and appropriate cables.
One that I saw, doing some searches, is the HD Fury, about $140 (no affiliation).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mama Told Me There'd Be Days Like This

We were down most of the afternoon today, and I couldn't fix it. It had to wait for service from a vendor. The staff were far more patient with being down than I was.

Absolutely the hardest situation for me to deal with when we've got a real problem, our staff can't work, and all I can do is wait for someone else.

Nice Office 2007 Tip

Here's a nice little tip for users adapting to Office 2007.

Most people miss the one-click icons prior versions had - for instance, opening a file, quick printing, and print preview. You can put icons back for these!

Go to the right of the big Office button and look at the icons - Save, Undo, Redo, and then a tiny little arrow pointing downward. Click on the tiny arrow, and a list comes up of icons you can add; click on the ones you'd like, and they'll appear in this small strip area at the top of the page.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another Kindle Nut

I'm a reader. In addition to the audio books, I am always reading at least one printed book. A friend got a Kindle last year, and I just had to have one, too.

My Kindle has started more conversations with strangers than any other item I've ever carried. Somebody seems to ask me about it whenever I use it in public. That might be considered a bad thing by some people, but I've always enjoyed giving a little demo.

I have dozens of books on the Kindle. I have two versions of the Bible and a giant dictionary (plus the Kindle comes with a dictionary built-in). I can buy books in a few seconds; for instance, two weeks ago, my son told me about Getting Things Done by David Allen, and after I hung up the phone, I purchased the book. Another time, I heard an interview with the author of Scratch Beginnings, and bought that on the spot. Two great reads, by the way.

One can load dozens of reference volumes onto the Kindle, as long as you've got it in a supported format. For instance, Word files, text files, .pdf files, and Mobi files (unless they've got DRM) can be used on the Kindle. Searching every book on the Kindle is nifty - and a great way to navigate your portable research library.

To buy a book, I make sure the Kindle's wireless is on. Then I click on the menu button and choose, Shop In Kindle Store. I run a search for the desired book, look at a page about the book, even cruise the customer reviews if I want. The price of the book displays. I click to buy the book, Amazon charges my credit card :), and in just a few seconds, the book is on the Kindle.

I get many of my books free, though. Although the Kindle came with a user's guide (handily loaded on the Kindle), I also purchased The Kindle Cookbook and learned a lot more ways to get my money's worth out of this gizmo. In addition, I subscribed to an online group, Kindle Corner, and often get good ideas from them, including lots of free books on Amazon.

Kindle keeps tracks of where I was in each book. I'm currently in about four books, in different spots. When I open that book again, it goes to the spot.

The Kindle does have a slightly gimpy internet browser, and I've used it a number of times. In particular, I used it for several hours once while stuck at an airport. It's okay if you're going to websites which are mainly text. My husband was using our laptop, and I had a better signal on the Kindle's "Whispernet" than he had from the airport wireless service.

The Kindle's wireless service is free.

I have also played with news feeds on the Kindle, and that works okay. I haven't subscribed to magazines on the Kindle (yet).

One of the issues that we book-lovers struggle with is storing lots and lots of books. I do not want my house any more filled with books than it is now, yet I find it pretty painful to get rid of books. Kindle books don't take up space and you can keep them. However, a real downside is that you can't share them easily.

I've read a great many customer reviews and comments about the Kindle. Many of them mention the gray scale screen. One person compared it to an Etch A Sketch. That's about right for the original Kindle screen. It uses "electronic ink" and I understand that the Kindle 2 has a lot more shades of gray and was designed to be better at displaying pictures. Because the Kindle is not backlit like a computer, and because it has a font size button that lets me use a bigger font, it is much easier on my eyes than reading either a paper book or a computer screen. I am somewhat farsighted, and I am also looking at a computer or paper all day - in other words, using my eyes all day, and then going home with tired eyes. Reading the Kindle in the evening is quite comfortable.

The Kindle 1 is rightly critized for not being good at displaying pictures. Most pictures are just too small. They worked on this with the second version.

The second version will also read the book in a mechanical voice. It is also only 1/4" thick, which would give me more space in my purse...

One very interesting development is Amazon's incursion into the textbook business with Kindle editions. I imagine the Kindle DX, which is touted for reading newspapers (it's BIG), will be terrific for textbooks, assuming Amazon can get a big enough piece of that market to make a difference.

Our college student son probably spends $500 or more each semester on textbooks. They're expensive in part because of their relatively small printing runs and distribution, and the Kindle might be a good solution for those two same reasons. There's no printing, and distribution is electronic.

Dell Mini 10 Review

We bought three Dell Mini 10 netbooks at work (aka Inspiron 1010s), and I’ve got one. Now that I’ve used it a month or so, I thought I’d relate my experience with it.

The Mini 10s we bought have the 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, the 160 GB SATA drive, 1 GB of memory, HDMI output, microphone and headphone jacks, 3 USB ports, an Ethernet port, Bluetooth, a card reader, and a wireless card. As the three of us looked at them, we decided we wanted the fairly loaded units. We all thought we’d like to have a solid-state drive, but going with the 64 GB flash drive was a lot more money than getting the 160 GB hard drive.

An optical drive is sold separately, not built in. I bought portable ones for the two guys, and didn’t bother for myself.

Loaded with that big hard drive it weighs 2 pounds, 14 ounces, and it’s extremely portable. In a pinch, I could slip it into a purse, but it turns out that I prefer a small laptop case with space for the power cord, mouse, and a few odds and ends. It would probably be six or seven ounces lighter with the flash drive instead of the hard drive, but I prefer having all that space.

We bought 3 years worth of warranty for ours. I thought the solid state drive might be more reliable, but the warranty takes care of that concern.

The other decision was whether to get XP Home Edition or Linux Ubuntu. I’ve heard how much people like Linux, but our people are used to using XP Pro, and some of our software recommends XP Pro. Since the price (when I shopped) was the same, I bought XP Home. I could always put Linux on later, if I wanted. These computers are portables for people who have regular desktops, so I thought I’d keep everything as familiar as possible.

I took mine home to configure first because I wanted to do some experimenting before I set up the others. I got Outlook Express, Norton, and MS Works off immediately, then put on Office 2007 and tried it out. It worked just fine. I used the computer a while and was generally pleased. I had read that XP Home can’t be used in a domain. I wanted to join the domain at work for several reasons: I wanted to run our client/server virus checker when we’re at work, to be able to access our files when we’re in the office, and we all want to print to home and several work printers easily.

Next, I tried putting XP Pro on it as an upgrade (we have a site license), and it upgraded without disturbing anything I’d already installed, piece of cake. Maybe they sell it with just those two operating system choices to keep the cost down. I have had no difficulties from using XP Pro on it, and no problems joining it to our domain.

My Mini took 2 minutes 15 seconds to boot with the XP Home, but only 1 minute 15 seconds to boot after I installed XP Pro. It takes a little longer now that I have joined it to the domain, since it goes through a few more steps. I configured them all with some of the special software we run at our offices, the work printers, the virus checker, our company mail in Outlook (I set mine up so it lets me choose between my home email and my work email), the security settings we need for our own software, the trusted sites we need, etc. In other words, I set them up exactly like our other work laptops, and as far as I can tell, it acts just like our other laptops.

One of the things people complain about with netbooks is the keyboard. I really don’t notice switching from my regular desktop to the mini very much: my full-sized desktop keyboard is 10-3/4” from the left edge of Caps Lock to the right edge of Enter. The Mini’s keyboard is 9-7/8”, so it’s 92% as wide as my regular desktop keyboard. The keys go all the way to the edges of the unit, and the special keys (like the arrow keys) are laid out sensibly. The unit is 7” by 10-1/8” and less than 2” thick in the back where the battery is, and less than 1” thick at the front.

One of my coworkers likes the touchpad, and the other one doesn’t. It’s very sensitive, and the left- and right-click buttons are part of the touchpad. I found that wasn’t a problem for me. It doesn’t have a touch stick, and I couldn’t care less, because I never could work a touch stick. I usually use a mouse, but the touchpad is okay when I am only using the Mini for a few minutes.

The wireless card is good; the Mini finds and connects to the various wireless networks I use automatically. The card reader is fine for transferring photos from my camera. Right now, it’s playing all the pix from my camera in a slide show, mostly wonderful shots of our fall cruise to New England and Canada, on its lovely little display. The webcam works, but I haven’t used it much. I really do need 3 USB ports, and sometimes I use them all at once! I haven’t really used the Bluetooth feature yet, because I’m not used to having one. We tried out the HDMI video output to our bedroom television which has an HDMI input, and the picture was wonderful; however, we didn’t get sound using the one cable. We tried watching a Netflix movie, downloading it using the house wireless and watching it on the TV. That was actually a good experience, but I’m going to have to research the sound issue.

For our office use, you might prefer ordinary VGA output. To connect to an external monitor, you need one with either HDMI or DVI input. You can get a HDMI to DVI cable. You can’t easily convert HDMI to VGA, so see what inputs your extra monitor or projector takes.

The speakers sound okay, but are wimpy and located on the bottom of the unit. I have terrific hearing and even so, I’d like more volume and usually use headphones or earbuds. I tried external speakers, and that was fine. I haven’t played with the microphone input.

The monitor is a widescreen format, 10.1” diagonal, and despite my poor close vision, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t have it on its highest resolution setting. It keeps displaying a message offering greater resolution, but I like the medium setting best. It’s doing a glorious job displaying photos - a bright, clear LED display.

One of the other users doesn’t care for the small picture and will use an external monitor when he’s at a desk. The other user is constantly on the go, and doesn't mind the tradeoff of a larger display for extreme portability.

It comes in a bunch of colors and stickers. Ours are basic, shiny black, very pretty. It does show fingerprints!

Battery life is fine. I have mixed feelings about the way the battery pack fits. It puts the netbook at a good typing angle, but it makes it thicker. I certainly hope that in the near future we’ll see more netbooks with ordinary rechargeable batteries instead of these expensive, special notebook batteries.

We bought these netbooks thinking they’d be good for portable email and web browsing, but were pleasantly surprised that they can handle just about any task you’d do on a regular office laptop.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Basic Network Equipment Considerations

Some general considerations as you manage your network equipment include warranties, buy or lease, grouping purchases, standardizing equipment, budgeting to avoid obsolescence, necessary regular maintenance, and equipment recordkeeping. You will probably find it a lot easier to work out basic guidelines on these things ahead of time than to decide as you go. I’ll share some of my approaches to these issues.

Warranties: Considering the time-and-money issues that plague almost every network, can you really afford to repair computers yourself? Warranties are often a very good buy compared to the cost of parts, let alone labor. I try to keep all the equipment in our network under warranty (almost everything is from Dell), by buying 3-year warranties along with the gear and then renewing warranties if I can’t replace something in three years.

In particular, warranties have been very economical for laptops, which in my experience have required far more repairs than desktop computers. And, when my regular duties are feeling overwhelming, I can easily show a user how to call in his or her own repair.

As to the buy or lease question – I buy. Leasing costs a lot more. If you think leasing works better for you, at least do the math and work out what the effective interest rate is on the lease. It might be a lot more than your credit card rate or your business line of credit rate.

Besides, your equipment is only going to last three years, and if you’re lucky, maybe five. If you buy one third, fourth, or fifth of your equipment each year, you spread out the cost.

The more different manufacturers and models that you have, the more effort becomes necessary to maintain everything. Wouldn’t you rather have only a couple of kinds of printers, one kind of desktop, and one kind of laptop? How about this approach to grouping your purchases and creating your own payment plan: replace desktops in year one, laptops in year two, printers and other peripheral equipment in year three, and servers and backup equipment in year four. You go along spending about the same amount each year, trying to get a couple spares in each batch of gear so you don’t have to buy too many items in between batches. Of course you’ll get off the schedule occasionally, but following such a plan helps reduce the variety of models you’re supporting, the number of different warranty expiration dates, and it certainly keeps your business from slumping into the “everything we own is obsolete and all the employees are griping” state.

When hard times come along, the “buy on rotation” approach lets you take a year off and let the equipment age. You can’t take a year off from lease payments!

We don’t do fancy or bleeding edge at the nonprofit where I work. We buy the business line models, not the consumer ones, and configure them all with the same business-oriented software.

Because I try so hard to keep the number of different models to a minimum, recordkeeping is a little easier. I have a folder with all the paperwork and disks that came with each product. I also have a list of all the equipment, the serial numbers, purchase dates, warranty dates, who has it, processor speed, memory, disk size, etc. It seems that, for me at least, I have to go inventory everything about once a year as well as recording it when we first buy it and changing the list as we get rid of things or reassign them. An easy way to track repairs is to keep the paperwork on the repair and note the model number and serial number of the machine.

And, while I’m on the subject, I’ve found that sometimes it’s just so easy to keep some old, obsolete but operable equipment. I’ve got a cheap streak, and in offices, we get used to keeping things like filing cabinets forever, but computers reach a point where they just have to go, and the best place to go is completely off the premises. If you let employees buy or take old equipment, it needs to be wiped clean with only the original configuration – not free copies of software or any company records and files. Maybe I’ll blog later about strategies to use if you want to sell or give equipment to employees.

What's an Accidental Systems Administrator, and WHY Would You Do That?

This is my term for those of us who take care of a network in addition to our regular job duties. I have noticed that there are a whole bunch of us accidental systems administrators! We’ve got a job and a little side order of network. We do it, whether or not we feel qualified! Some of them are feeling great satisfaction, while others consider it a very unwelcome monkey on their backs. Some of them are doing it effectively, and others need to get some help.

I enjoy being an accidental systems administrator. I find it very interesting, surprisingly different from the other work I do, and a great way to build relationships with other workers. I am a patient person, and I get a kick out of helping solve problems. That’s not terribly unusual for Certified Public Accountants; after all, most of us earn a living by researching and then conveying valuable information; the others I know do puzzles, and most of us enjoy that feeling that we’re valuable to our clients or employer.

Maybe you were drafted to be the sys admin at your office – someone has to do it! Maybe you own your own business – maybe, for instance, you’re a veterinarian with a small office network and you’re the one person at your animal clinic who has some natural ability to do it. Maybe you you’re doing it yourself to save money. Maybe you’re working at a nonprofit where the mission is dear to your heart, but there isn’t a lot of money. Maybe you’re doing it just until we all pull through this recession. Maybe you have a home network with various students and home businesses and hobbyists you’re supporting (along with paying their bills and mowing their lawn). Maybe you set up a network for your parents’ home or business.

This is a great way to become a more valuable employee. How’d you like an image as the person who keeps up with technology and is dedicated to the business? Your knowledge of basic network administration can help you to do your regular job – since we’re becoming an information and service economy, and it seems like everyone is on a computer now.

What if you’re not a systems administrator at all, but part of your management job is to oversee an information technology function? It’s helpful to understand networks enough to follow some of their jargon and understand what the most important maintenance and security involves. Maybe you think your IT guys are saying “no” too much, and you’d like to better understand what’s possible.

I am hoping this will be a forum for you to comment, ask questions – and if I don’t know, as I often don’t – others will pitch in. I want to support and encourage each other, to foster an environment where there is no such thing as a stupid question, and we’re all trying to learn and grow, and it’s okay to be an amateur or beginner among wonks. (I am going to moderate comments, so don’t even bother to spew nasties if you’re one of those angry little people.)