February 2002 Part Two


11th February

Oh, bliss - a quiet day to start the week... That's so rare. Spent an hour in the morning moving retired monitors, keyboards and mice from the computer room to the storage room in the main office, where I was forced to leave them all in a huge wobbling heap for the desktop support team to sort out... Quelle domage. We've got rid of around a dozen monitors etc from the computer room, in all, and as well as giving much more space and simplifying the cabling rat's nest a little, there are considerable advantages both in the decrease in current drawn from the UPS and the amount of heat dissipated - with the aircon in the state it is, any improvement in the latter may yet save our corporate bacon...

Glad to read that Storage Review may yet survive, after a tough time of it financially - it's a real techie's paradise, with reviews of hard disk drives and controllers absolutely bursting with hard data - page-upon-page-upon-page of graphs, charts and benchmarks, with all their testing methodologies openly analysed and critiqued; but at the end of all that they've never been afraid to offer an opinion, too: "buy X, not Y" - and that's just what a hard-working geek needs. I hope that they manage to find a way.

I've spent a little more time researching the problems with the scanner, and have now decided to try ditching the cut-down ISA SCSI card that shipped with it, in favour of whatever flavour of Adaptec I have lying around. I'm fairly sure I have a couple of classic 2940s in the vault, and assuming that I don't run into some horrible narrow-to-wide conversion problem (which I probably will) a relatively modern PCI plug-and-play adaptor can only make things simpler. I'll still sacrifice the black chicken first, though - this is starting to acquire the feel of a real project of lost souls...

Yesterday I finally managed to spend a few hours with the current model kits - the Redstone is ready for painting, now, and the Willey Ley lunar lander is coming on well, too. That's going to be a nice little model, I think, if I can get the paint right.

10th February

Still asleep, but having to sort out an IP address conflict on the home LAN as my first task of the day - it looks like one of the wireless devices I set up yesterday has picked up a DHCP lease that I wasn't expecting, and has somehow thrown the server off the network...  <blinks> <yawns> <gives up until later>

Now here's a thing - brakes for skis, using an electric current flowing through wires embedded in the blade of the ski! The brakes worked well in tests, says their creator, Victor Petrenko: "The change in friction you get is equivalent to going from being on ice to dry pavement." That's got to cut down on the number of injuries, if it comes to market.

[Later] Untangled the IP conflict, which was surprisingly awkward... in the end I re-created most of the DHCP leases and exclusions, and everything is now not only working well, but neatly arranged too... I guess anal retentive tendencies are no bad thing in a sysadmin - one day I hope to graduate to a full-blown technology prima donna. "I am Mordac, denier of information services! I'll get your PC, and your little PDA too!"

In spite of that, though, I'm currently working like an SOB to re-install the scanner on the 2000Pro system I rebuilt a few weeks ago. It's horrible - Umax provides plenty of information on their various web sites, but it's all extremely contradictory and tends to lapse into foreign languages mid-way through a page. It worked before the rebuild, but I've forgotten exactly which particular hack of drivers and applications was the only one that worked together, and the trial and error (with at least two reboots between each test) is wearing: I've tried V2.4, V3.1 and V3.55 without success, so far, but maybe V3.51 will do it. [Crosses fingers] Hmmm. No, the fourth attempt just killed Windows, so that's enough for today... Ten minutes with the Recovery Console to repair the system, and then I shall have to sacrifice a black chicken at a cross-roads before the next try...

9th February

Ah, the weekend at last, meaning only four hours in the office before I could get back to my own network. <abashed grin> The wiring at work went well, though, with another six or seven monitors etc now ready to be recycled and the computer room looking almost Spartan in comparison... The Exchange defrag whizzed through, too - the last few times I've done that the database was up around 14Gb, with the temp files piped to a (slow) server elsewhere... it used to take a whole weekend, but thanks to a year of user intimidation and brutally enforced mailbox limits, the database now floats at around a far more manageable 4Gb and it all took less than an hour.

On my way out, I snagged an old mini-tower case (complete with obsolete motherboard, by the look of it) that our R&D department were throwing out - the same source as the wonderful Baystack 350 network switch that backbones our home network. I can't imagine why they disposed of that one, as although it's not a current model it was state-of-the art only three or four years ago (gigabit fibre uplinks!) and obviously has a few more years left in it yet, but the case I've just salvaged is easier to explain - it's in AT format rather than ATX, so not easily useable with modern motherboards, but it's a nice little case and I'm sure that it will find a useful home somewhere.

I bought a Netgear 802.11b wireless access point and card for the office, a while ago, and as I've never found the time to evaluate it there I finally brought it home. This model is around the cheapest on the market at present, and also around the slowest - but it really is a stable and easy-to-use system. Installation was as close to plug-and-play as is ever achieved, and establishing a 128bit secure WEP connection was no harder than thinking up and entering twenty-six random numbers... It is slow, of course, peaking at around 350KBytes/sec in Windows, but still faster than our Internet bandwidth and so extremely well-suited for wire-free browsing from the laptop. It's also completely obsolete, as the first 802.11a devices are finally starting to ship, bringing an instant jump from 11Mbps to 54Mbps or even faster with proprietary modes - almost approaching the speed of most wired LAN segments. There's no real reason to expect the "a" standard to be any less user-friendly than the "b", so I shall continue to use the firm's hardware until my excuse runs out, and hope that by then the prices have fallen a little.

8th February

Somewhat to my surprise, the new RADIUS system is working rather well, and is significantly easier to manage - only a few glitches today, with which my PFY coped admirably <grin> while I cabled and organised. There was a network glitch last night, though, and when I tried to dial in to check it I discovered that all my accounts were completely locked out. I hope I've fixed that, now...

Snakes alive! Pink UTP cables! En masse in the cabinet, they look even more pink - but they carry the signal perfectly, with no apparent difference from the traditional direct connection. Next week we shall see how well it copes with a 100m plus run of plain CAT5 up to the main office... The whole KVM switch is a really elegant piece of hardware, actually - installation was trivial, and switching from one server to another is as quick the monitor can re-sync on the new signal. The only thing remaining is to find out how to throw it  into auto-scan mode, which seems to need an extra admin right that I somehow don't have... Yes, the KVM switch has it's own user security database... Hmmm.


The new racking is great as far as I'm concerned, but an anecdotal report says that the DBA and the telecomms guy have already managed to break part of one unit in the main office while running cables behind it... The middle photo shows a rack with a few temporarily homeless servers and two KVM "user stations", each capable of displaying and controlling one of the seven servers I've so far connected. I'll pop in for a couple of hours tomorrow to connect the rest, and defrag the Exchange email database while I'm at it - it's not that it really needs maintenance, but the IT department manager (whose obsessive employee monitoring habits fall foul of any of the recent data laws you care to name) is fussing about flagged-for-deletion records that only his hacked-together Access reports can actually see, and the defrag's hard-delete is probably the only thing that will get him off my back for a couple of days...

The grey and black Dell servers above the actual KVM switch are a recent addition - I keep them away from the Compaqs in case they fight... I've been using Compaq server hardware since the original SystemPro, and greatly prefer it to anything else, but they just can't compete on price with Dell, these days. These all purport to be PowerEdge 2400 systems, but they were bought over a period of a year or so and each is subtly different... Apart from the obvious cosmetic changes, one has dual redundant PSUs, there are two different SCSI/RAID subsystems, the rack-mounting rails are all different, and the internal layout is all over the place... It's just plain annoying, and I'd happily sacrifice Dell's bleeding-edge hardware for a degree of Compaq's traditional build stability.

7th February

That was a day-and-a-half... However, the server shelving is all in place, and very nice it looks, too - I'll post some pictures ASAP. The KVM switch is still in many cardboard boxes, as it turned out that I could only split myself into two parts after all, but the new RADIUS authentication software is working remarkably well considering the weird lash-up of systems we have in place... it's not that we have an exotic requirement (merely to provide secure dialup access to a sales-force who are apparently barely capable of operating a pocket calculator, let alone a PC) but we've had too many companies involved in the past, each of whom has added their own quirks, wrinkles and oddities to the system... I barely understand it, these days, but my PFY has made it one of his pet projects, so it's in good hands when it comes to day-to-day operations... When it occasionally stops working, however, it's rarely clear which part of the authentication chain has failed, and we both have a tendency to run around flapping our arms until we can get through to the current company-of-the-month's tech support... Ho hum.

I can thoroughly recommend the company that supplied the furniture and KVM hardware, though - a new firm called Backspace Ltd - they supplied and installed exactly what we wanted, on-time and on-budget, and from the useful and unbiased advice given while we were speccing the systems they obviously know their stuff. Good luck to them!

Tomorrow will be another busy day, with around a million cables to run and around a million servers to move, but it's the right sort of thing for a Friday, and something I can be convincingly busy with when the RADIUS dies (which it surely will!) and simply have to rely on the PFY.  :-)

"PFY" is Pimply-Faced-Youth, the term coined by the remarkable Simon Travaglia for the tech support junior in his Bastard Operator From Hell stories. I've been a huge fan of Travaglia ever since I found the original story on a FidoNet BBS somewhen in the pre-Internet days, and even attempted my own addition to the canon - which then inspired the creation of the startlingly successful BOFH forum on the CiX Conferencing system, then one of the biggest BBS communities in Europe. I resigned from moderating the conference a few years ago, when other commitments left me with insufficient time to oversee more than two hundred volatile techies (herding cats I can manage, but that... I believe they currently use a team of six!) but I still re-read Travaglias's early work and giggle... The canon is huge now, though - a weekly column (and merchandise!) in The Register and even a pay-per-view streaming TV series - Salmon Days.

6th February

This is NASA's "Astronomy Picture Of The Day". Today's image of the cosmic infrared background is probably fascinating to cosmologists, but not nearly as pretty as many of the others:

Spiral galaxies in collision    The Rosette Nebular    The Trifid Nebular    White Dwarf in NGC2440

More furniture to be moved at the office (Oops! I'd forgotten that we were replacing some desks upstairs, too, with more purpose-built server racking!), but tomorrow is the big day... New furniture, the KVM switch, and a major upgrade to our RADIUS dialup authentication software all happening at once - there's nothing like careful planning for major IT projects - and this is nothing like careful planning. However, I think I've prepared as much as possible, planned for most of the obvious "gotchas", and all that remains is to divide myself into three pieces. Those fluorescent pink KVM cables are certainly a wonderful colour, though - I keep getting them out to fondle them, but the glare is too strong to look directly at them for long...

5th February

Banks... <mutters> Online banking, at least with most UK banks, is a scam... it currently takes at around five days before a bill payment made online is actually credited to the destination account, and I'm sure it would be as quick to post a cheque, sometimes... I know from work that the "BACS" system that underpins these transactions has been upgraded significantly over the last five years, but none of the improvements in processing and authentication times have been handed out to the end-users, the bank's customers. There's money at the heart of it, of course - if you can hang on to those funds for another couple of days each time a transfer is made, the shareholders stay happy... That's to be expected, I know, but it does annoy me that such an IT-rich industry as banking is making such poor use of the technology outside of their own back-office.

I see that, as expected, Dubya's hired gunslinger has slashed the NASA budget again, going for the quick-fix of atomic propulsion (or should that be "nukular"?) and axing what could have been an extremely revealing probe to Europa. The President Select just likes nukes, I guess, and is probably already rubbing his hands with glee over the potential military spin-offs.

Full story at Yahoo

4th February

Aargh! Not a good start to the day - when I went to get the new week's tapes from the fire-safes in a garage behind the office block, I discovered a pool of water on top of one of them... Some off-the-record enquiries suggest that "everybody knows" that those garages leak - which makes me wonder why they were recently deemed such a good place to hold the company's data. It's been a chapter of accidents over the last few months, actually - first the computer room air-conditioning died, vomiting several litres of water over the back of the cabinet holding all the Ethernet switches, and then a few weeks later the UPS blew up, killing all power to the computer room right in the middle of the day... Both were a symptom of a severe lack of maintenance, and although the UPS has now been replaced with a shiny new thirty KVA eight-foot-tall giant, the aircon is still limping along on a wing and a prayer - well, and an illegal refill of Freon! Apparently it's leaking like a sieve, though, and probably won't hold together for much longer. It's all very frustrating - after the last disaster, it emerged that the personnel director, of all people, had somehow stalled the aircon maintenance contract renewal... and the UPS maintenance was simply overlooked. <tired sigh>

We're having new server racking installed in the computer room later this week, so I've spent the day humping servers from one side of the room to another... The same supplier is also installing a Raritan Paragon KVM switch, one of the new breed that uses high-quality CAT5e twisted pair rather than conventional PS/2 and VGA cabling. As this is the only CAT5 in the building that won't be carrying Ethernet, I've bought some shocking pink cables to minimise the risk of misconnections... I don't know what would happen if this kind of data was fed into a network switch, but it might well be bad - and I really don't want to be the person who finds out... The cables weren't too expensive, in spite being well over-spec even for CAT5e at 350MHz bandwidth, but I'm mindful of my recent experience with the cables on my home KVM, and will certainly try with plain-jane 100MHz CAT5e and even regular ol' CAT5. We shall see...

Just discovered that I'm a Wednesday's Child - "Full of woe". Ah, well, that explains it...

3rd February

No computers to tend to, today, so I turned to the plastic space model kits that have been waiting patiently in the queue for my time. I had a major bug for those kits last summer, and recently picked up the next batch from the eccentric but excellent obsolete model supplier Kingkit. I've already bought most of the space kits currently in production, but there are plenty from the space travel boom years of the sixties and seventies, and I'm gradually working through the ones I like.

I made a start on two kits, today - the first is a simple little kit of the US Army's Redstone ballistic missile, variants of which launched America's first satellites and planetary probes, and also the first two Mercury capsules. The second is a fairly rare Glencoe Models kit, a speculative 1950s design for a lunar lander. The design is based on work by the space futurist Willy Ley, and although it's appearance is little like the Apollo programme's landers, the functionality and design philosophy are identical.

I doubt if mine will look as neat as the finished version above, but I'm going to try airbrushing the main surfaces rather than brushing, and I hope that will help. The main problem is going to be working out where to put them, as the airspace above my desk is already a touch overcrowded.

2nd February

Cut down a spare Any Key to match the low-profile keys on the new keyboard (the Dremel again - I'm using it for everything these days!) and mounted it on an empty area. On the old keyboard I actually modified an Any Key to replace the Scroll Lock keycap, but as I'm planning a glow-job for the Logitech I want to have a poke around inside to check whether that is feasible before doing any other mods.

I also slipped the secondary disk into "The Ultimate Hard Disk Cooler", found cheap online at Maplin Electronics. Any claims of supremacy are unfounded in the face of offerings from Koolance and VapoChill, among others, but it seems to blow fairly well and the blue anodised heatsink is certainly pretty enough.

While I was in there, I traced some of the Digidoc cables and found the fan on the end of the mysterious channel four... Oops! I'd forgotten that one of the fans in the Enermax PSU was wired for monitoring... I'd forgotten that it had two fans, for that matter. Must update the count...

After that I spent a while going through the firewall logs with an eval copy of WebTrends Firewall Suite - even on my little appliance, it pulls out some impressive statistics (and beautiful graphs to display them!) and I think it should definitely be on my shopping list for the office in the new financial year. Our network shows the expected huge number of TCP port scans and probes, of course... Many of them completely automated these days, I gather, and not necessarily a sign of malice... A handful of them look extremely purposeful, though, and it's nice to know that the firewall is there...

1st February

The backups both at home and the office went well, so that's one less thing to worry about... but I suddenly have the urge to warn prospective purchasers against Legato Networker, the system I use at the office. There's no doubt that it's a powerful backup app, but even after six versions it still shows it's UNIX origins far more than I think it should, and it's complexity and versatility can mean that even simple backup procedures are a minefield of oddities, quirks, weirdnesses and gotchas. I've been wrestling with it for three years, and although it's definitely saved my bacon on a couple of occasions after serious disk problems, I'm extremely relieved that we're now on the point of dumping it to replace with Veritas Backup Exec, also my choice for the home network. BE has become an extremely mature and stable product, and although it may not be quite so flexible as Networker can be, for anything less than the extremes of cross-platform remote-server backup requirements it usually performs the most important part of any backup (just getting on with the job of reliably copying data from disk to tape!) - better, faster, and with less administration and fussing than anything else I've used... and over the years, I've used most of 'em...

To go with the new software, we're replacing the ADIC Scalar 218 jukebox with a shiny new Dell-badged LTO unit. The dual-drive Scalar has proved an extremely worthwhile piece of hardware (even Microsoft uses them!), but our dealer's promised upgrade path from DLT4000 to 7000 never materialised out of the vapour, and my extravagant users have ensured that the full end-of-period backups now fill at least four DLT tapes! I'm hoping that a full backup with the new system will fit onto a single Ultrium cartridge, and as the jukebox can be expanded to seventy-two slots and six drives (that's over fourteen Terabytes - what a beast!) compared to the Scalar's sixteen and two, I think we should be covered for another three years at least.





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