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Category Archives: General

Exchange, Hotels and Laptops

I haven’t written a lot on here recently, partly because I’ve been busy at work with various projects and partly because I’ve been stressing about buying a new house (I’m still waiting for the people at the top of the chain to vacate their property. There are only four people in the chain, including me, yet it’s been nearly 6 months since I sold my property. C’mon people, let’s get moving).

Anyway, I’m writing this from my new laptop in my hotel room in London where I’ve been sent to attend an Exchange 2010 course. I have a spare thirty minutes, so thought I’d write up a quick review of my experience so far. As with most of my reviews, these are based on my own narrow perspective and should probably be read with a generous pinch of salt.

Laptop

Work recently provided me with a new laptop, after I dropped a not-so-subtle hint that my own had died and I couldn’t afford to replace it (Not strictly true, but hey, I use it for work so why shouldn’t work pay for it!). Anyway, I chose a Samsung Series 7 Chronos laptop with an i5 processor, 8Gb of RAM and a 1Tb hard drive. I have been using it every day this week, and I am suitably impressed with the hardware. The battery life (although perhaps not the reported 11 and a half hours) exceeds my previous laptops by several hours, the screen is large enough to be useful and is crystal clear. The keyboard is comfortable, and the keys are well spaced and don’t have that “flick off-able” quality that some cheaper laptop keyboards have (you know, when you’re speed typing and your finger catches the edge of a key and flicks it off. And no matter what you do, that key never feels the same afterwards!).

In fact, the only thing that lets this laptop down is the software. It can pre-loaded with Windows 8, which was an intentional decision on my part as I felt that I needed to get some exposure to Win8 in order to better assist friends, family & colleagues when they upgrade. While I am pretty sure the OS works well on a mobile device such as a tablet or phone, I really don’t like it on laptops (nor will I like it on desktops!). Microsoft have put both interfaces (the new Metro touchscreen style interface, and the old style desktop interface), and while you can flick between them manually, the fact that different apps runs in different interfaces mean that you will spend much of your time switching between the two. This wouldn’t be so bad if applications such as IE that run in both interfaces actually moved between interfaces as well, but unfortunately each IE instance is totally separate, so pages you’ve opened in one interface don’t appear in the other.

Some of the apps also don’t feel particularly stable. The provided Mail app, for example, keeps telling me that my gmail account is unavailable, despite synching with it not 5 minutes ago. And what is up with having to sign in with a Microsoft account for everything (You even have to sign in with your Microsoft account to start the Mail app, even if you’ve no intention of using the app with a Microsoft email account.

All in all, Windows 8 feels a bit like Vista. A step between two vastly different products that has been used to introduced new features and technologies. As with most new technology, it has rough edges that I’m sure will be smoothed out in time for the release of Windows 9.

Hotel

I’m staying in the Travelodge on City Road, and I have to say, it’s not been as bad as I thought it’d be. Despite it’s location, and the warnings of traffic and nightclub noise posted on their website, the room has been for the most part quiet and relaxing. The only noisy elements have been one or two of the guests who seem to thinking nothing of having conversations at the top of their voices whilst leaving their rooms at 4am.

The room is basic, but clean. Tea/Coffee etc are provided free of charge and are topped up daily. The room is also cleaned daily (I noted that some other reviews stated their rooms were only cleaned a couple of times a week). There is a bar/café down stairs which I haven’t yet used, so can’t really comment on the quality of the food, but it’s nice to know that it’s an option.

The staff (from the little I’ve seen of them) are friendly and polite. All in all, a decent hotel that I would have no objection to staying in again.

Course

Finally, the Exchange 2010 course that I’ve been attending. I’m not going to go into too much detail yet with the actual course content, as the week isn’t over and it’d be unfair to judge the course based on the first couple of days (which tend to be quite basic regardless of what course you’re on).

The course is being carried out by QA on Tabernacle Street, which is only a couple hundred yards from my hotel. The facilities are about average, with free tea/coffee/biscuits etc. Each student has their own dual screened workstation with 16Gb RAM and plenty of virtual machines to play with. Unlike some courses, you’re not made to pair up with another student in order to test out interactions between systems; each individual workstation runs its own virtual AD/Exchange organisation.

Lunch is pretty much as good as it gets for someone with “lunchophobia”, with us being essentially kicked out and made to find our own places to eat (although we are permitted to bring food back to the classroom).

All in all, not a bad experience and I don’t think I’d have any objections staying in this Travelodge once more, armed with my Chronos laptop ready to embark upon another QA course.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in Study, Work

 

VMWare Woes Pt2

As readers of my blog may recall, I posted about issues I’ve been having with our new VMWare system running on an HP 3000 blade chassis.

As a quick reminder, the system had been set up by consultants who knew their way around VMware, but didn’t seem to have a clue about the networking side. Although the system was cabled correctly into two physical switches, failure of one switch caused the system to drop offline rather than use the second switch.

Political issues and various managers throwing their toys around meant the consultants were no longer willing to assist us, so the problem fell to me to resolve. My efforts were hampered by the fact that the IT Manager allowed people to start accessing the VM’s, which of course meant I couldn’t take the system offline during working hours.

As I’d correctly guessed, our issues were being caused by the fact that the failure of a physical switch was not being seen by the ESXi host connected to that switch (each ESXi host is connected to the C3000 interconnect switch, which connects to the physical switch).

Having tried (and failed) to use Beacon Probing to work around this, the solution would appear to be to enable Uplink Failure Detection on the C3000 interconnects. Thich allows us to tell the interconnect to kill the downlinks to an ESXi host when it detects a failure on a physical switch uplink. This has the effect of alerting the ESXi host to the network failure, which will then start utilising remaining network paths for outboun traffic.

Unfortunately, even that wasn’t straight forward, as UFD only works on uplinks that share the same VLAN configuration. Our consultants had set up multiple uplinks with each in a different VLAN. This week, I managed to recable the system so that the VLANs are all trunked over the same uplinks, allowing me to enable UFD. Four days later, the system is still up, there are no signs of the new configuration causing any issues and (I think) we now have a fully fault tolerant ESXi environment. Stay tuned for part 3 when I test my work and start pulling out various cables!

Oh, and the issue with one of the VM’s hanging at 95% when powered on was due to it having been automatically migrated to another ESXi host during the maintenance period. It was waiting for me to respond to a question asking if I had moved or copied the VM, but I hadn’t spotted this as the question is actually asked on a different tab; no indication of this is given on the main tab, it just looks like the VM has hung!

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Computers, Work

 

e-Film Workstation 3.4 ODBC Bug

Bit of a random post, but I came across this issue earlier today while troubleshooting a problem at work today. As I didn’t find it documented anywhere else, I thought I’d throw it up here 🙂

e-Film is a DICOM viewer used by hospitals and imaging departments for viewing medical images. While older versions used an Access database to store information, version 3.4 (which is what some of our radiographers at work use) uses a SQL 2005 Express database.

I’d been troubleshooting an issue where the user was getting a delay of around 10 seconds each time she changed to a different image. With a couple of hundred images per case, she was getting understandably frustrated. I noticed she had over 73,000 images stored in her local database, so my first thought was to clear this down. The quickest way to do this is to move the contents of the DICOM folder in the e-Film program folder to a different location and then tell e-film to rebuild its database.

This is when I discovered the bug. e-Film refused to build the database, and when I checked the log it was suggesting that the username or password was wrong. This seemed a bit odd, since e-Film itself was working ok. When I checked further, it turned out that the database name in the system DSN in the ODBC settings had an extra space at the end of it. Removing this space fixed the problem and allowed e-Film to rebuild the database. Not sure how or why e-Film is able to function when the database name is incorrect – perhaps it doesn’t use the settings from the system DSN?

And for those wondering, clearing down the database hasn’t fixed the initial problem, so back to the drawing board on that one.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Work

 

VMWare Woes

A few years ago, a new project dropped into my lap at work. This project was to involve the setup and configuration of a “next-generation” linux server for our Genetics department to run their sequencing analyses. The next-gen server was to replace an aging 1U Dell server with a pitiful single P4 processor and 4Gb RAM (the poor thing ran maxed out pretty much 24×7). So far, so good.

And then the IT manager got involved and decided that the money for the next-gen server should be invested in a decent VMWare environment, with the Genetics department getting a virtual linux server to use instead. And this is where the fun begins. To begin with, I had been getting quotes for a server with between 48 and 128Gb RAM. Our new virtual system has 32Gb, total. Given that the Genetics server will be one of many virtual hosts running on this system, 32Gb is likely to be insufficient. This is not the biggest issue however.

Our IT manager then decided to pay for consultants to come out and set up the system. This seemed logical; while we have some experience with ESXi having run a small ESXi environment for a year or so, we don’t have experience with complex VMWare setups with multiple blades and SANs.

Unfortunately, the IT manager also ordered two new switches that the SAN and blade chassis would connect to. Equallly unfortunately, he didn’t consult his infrastructure engineer (that’d be me) and so we ended up with cheap switches that don’t support the features necessary for a fully fault tolerant setup. The consultants weren’t too fazed by this. After a bit of head scratching, they set up a semi-working system and left. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2012 in Work

 

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A Day In The Life Of Me.

5:30am. Woken up by a flock of wood pigeons that have decided it’d be fun to sit on my chimney making their pigeon sounds. It’s only at times like this that you can truly appreciate how mindnumbingly repetitive a pigeons call is. No variation, no tune, just the same two notes over and over again. It’s almost worse that the wind chimes my neighbours seem to love.

6:00
Time for a coffee and a shower before heading to work to pick up where I left off last week, fixing the backup server.

7:00
Arrived at work to find two more UPS batteries have died over the weekend. How hard is it to get a decent supply of power to the site? Note to self: those’ll need changing.
Get coffee.
Start work on the backup server, swapping out PERC6/E card and rebooting the tape drive. Oh good, the disk is full so backups from half the remaining servers have failed too.
Also start work repatching the HP VMWare and SAN kit to get that up & running while we wait for the support company to figure out why their NIC teaming config doesn’t work with our procurve switches.

9:30
Get a call from one of our users to say her VPN is down. Check the router, is down. Check the logs, nothing. Great. Reboot router to get it working. Note to self: that’ll need checking.
Pick up a helpdesk call someone had reported saying wifi Internet is down and his PACS client doesn’t work. Wifi problem was due to router, is sorted. Assign call back to IT for someone else to deal with his PACS issue.
Get the first of the days emails from a chap who I’ll call Mike (why Mike, I hear you ask. Because that’s his name and it’d be rude to call him something else) giving further info about a problem he was having with our old linux genetics server. Yeah, I already know what the problem is with that, he’s used up his disk quota (again). Extended it (again) and replied.
More emails from Mike. Carry on fixing backup server while vaguely pondering why this tape drive is so crap.

10:00
Power on new Linux VM for Mike to start testing.
More emails from Mike.
Email from random user asking me to put a shortcut to her program on her desktop. Oh well, needed to grab some CD’s from her colleague so go across and help her out (besides, she’d probably have to wait 3 days if she logged a call in the helpdesk).
Carry on troubleshooting backup server. Starting to dislike Backup Exec with a passion. For the love of god, the tape drive is NOT offline.

11:00 – 13:00
Still working on the backup server. Resisting the urge to rip tape drive out of rack and slam it against the wall repeatedly.
Email from one of my colleagues: When’s backup server gonna be fixed? Resist the urge to beat her with tape drive.
More emails from Mike asking about segmentation faults. Calmly reply. Ah, linux.
Email from Maintenance to advise that they’ll be working on site’s power supply tomorrow. Note to self: replace those UPS batteries ASAP.

13:00
Take 10 minutes to eat a sarnie and grab coffee.
Notice no-one has dealt with PACS call from earlier. Pick up call and fire off an email to the user asking the name of his PC.
Email from Mike containing a two page list of applications he wants installing on new linux server.
Email from HR asking if she can use my dictaphone. Fight the urge to reply telling her to use her finger like everyone else. Take her a spare dictaphone.
Place an order with our suppliers for more UPS batteries.
Start compiling apps for Linux server.
Good news, the backup server seems to be working (at least, the tape drive is now online and backup job *seems* to be running).
Power down servers attached to failed UPS’s and replace batteries.

15:00
IT manager wanders in for a random chat. Waste 30 minutes listening to him babble about the ESX server he runs at home.

15:30 – 17:30
Continue compiling apps for new linux server and start updating documentation.
More emails from Mike. Why doesn’t the latest version of BWA work on the new server? No idea. Note to self: figure that out later.
Email from user asking if her mailbox is working as she hasn’t received an email she was expecting. Check postfix logs for senders address – nothing. Reply to say it’s a problem at the senders end.
Grab coffee.

17:30
Email from PACS user demanding someone responds to his helpdesk call and fixes his problem A-S-A-P. Calmly reply telling him I emailed him at midday and was waiting for his reply.
Get a reply: he didn’t receive the email. Underlying tone of email suggests it’s somehow my fault he didn’t receive his email.
Check the Exchange dumpster. He did receive the email, then 20 minutes later he permanently deleted it. Resist the urge to get arsey. Suggest he reboots. Problem now solved.

17:30 – 18:30
Carry on compiling apps and configuring samba services. Linux is my calm place.

18:30
Time to go home, grab something to eat and catch up on personal emails.

19:30
Notice lawn is a bit long. Spend 20 minutes thinking about nothing whilst wandering backwards and forwards with mower, before getting irritated at the RAF (why DO they have to fly in the evenings. Practice during the day dammit).

20:00
Notice the backup job has completed. VPN in and clear space on server before starting failed jobs from the weekend running.
Grab a vodka & redbull, stick Spotify and settle down to finish writing proposal for new RDP over SSL system.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Work

 

Bring Your Own Device. Shudder.

It had to happen. Maybe they saw us secretly playing with (sorry, I mean testing) iPads in the IT department. Perhaps they saw the headlines that David Cameron plays a “scary, crazy” amount of time playing Fruit Ninja on his iPad. Whatever the reason, I was told yesterday that our Executive Committee wants us to recommend to them that they need some form of wireless tablet that they can connect to the corporate network to help boost productivity.

I couldn’t help but groan when I heard this. While I certainly think proper, secure Wifi access is something we should be thinking about (currently our wifi’s allow access to the Internet only – no corporate LAN access), I just know the CEO and co will be thinking that this is as simple as 1. purchase device and 2. connect to network. Unfortunately this way of doing things quickly leads to 3. clean up the malware infestation and 4. watch your data walk out of the door.

While the request specify mentions this Exec Committee, I see this as part of a growing trend towards Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies. Many users already use their own laptops at work rather than the Windows 7 desktop PC’s we supply, choosing to copy data between laptop and desktop via USB sticks (or simply keeping their data on their own laptop). For that reason, I think that this is a good opportunity to put forward recommendations for personal device usage that encompasses the whole organisation.

For me, there are two areas of concern. Firstly, we must ensure that personal devices cannot compromise the security of the corporate network by introducing malware. Whilst we cannot take responsibility for the state of a personal device (eg does it have antivirus enabled and up to date? Is it fully patched?) we must be able to prevent devices that are at risk from connecting to the network.

Secondly, we must be able to control (or at least, audit) what happens to corporate data. If Joe Bloggs is fired, we must be confident that he doesn’t walk out of the door with our customer database on his laptop. Unfortunately, given that many users already choose to use their own laptops for storing work, we are already falling behind with this. Equally unfortunately, this is as much an HR/management issue as it is a technological one. And our management are notoriously bad for giving in to user demands (we once implemented an endpoint policy using Safend software, all approved by the Executive Committee, only for it to be scrapped within an hour of being enabled due to a handful of users complaining that their own USB devices were being rejected. Despite the fact that we’d made the relevant people aware that this would happen, and had supplied approved USB devices to be used instead).

So this weekend, I shall be putting on my creative thinking cap and doing some research into how other companies are dealing with this. My first thoughts are perhaps to continue separating corporate and personal devices on different networks, and implementing a Windows 2008 Remote Desktop Services system on the corporate LAN to publish remote applications that users can use to work on corporate data, perhaps combined with a network quarantine solution to ensure that devices meet a minimal approved specification before being approved on the network. The advantage (or perhaps the disadvantage!) to RDS is that it could potentially be made available to the outside world, allowing users the freedom to work from anywhere.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2012 in Computers, Security, Work

 

Argh…Windows 7 and Users

The last few weeks have been a bit hectic at work, with me regularly working up to 12 hours a day, and more often than not, coming home and working remotely in the evenings too.

Most of the reason behind this has been because of the Windows 7 rollout that I’m managing. With over a hundred new PC’s now configured and deployed across the site (with the exception of a few held back due to software compatibility issues), I thought now would be a good time to sit back (albeit for about 30 seconds) and reflect on how things have gone and what I could have done differently/better.

First of all, I think that this is technically probably the most organised rollout we’ve done. Thanks to a combination of SMS reports and command line magic, we had a detailed inventory of all existing machines that were being replaced with new kit, so each computer could be individually customised for the user before it was deployed. This took some time, especially given the fact that we were also performing full backups of every computer we received back. We do tell our users not to save data on the C: drive, but we’ve had problems before with data on the C: drive nearly being lost and, as always, it was “our fault” – hence the need for complete backups.

The second thing that strikes me is that some of our users have been unnecessarily nit-picky about the whole thing. I understand the whole Outlook 2010 ribbon bar/gui thing will take some getting used to, but I had hoped the fact that users have gone from having old machines that, in some cases took 30 minutes from switch on to being useable, to having machines that booted in about 60 seconds, would soften any resistance to change. Especially when, two weeks ago, the same users were complaining that they were still being forced to use old software and how we had to “keep up with the rest of the world”.

We also have the student committee complaining that we haven’t upgraded them yet. Well, I’m sorry, but there is only one of me and while I realise you may “want” the new software, you certainly don’t “need” it to the extent where I stop working on more urgent upgrades to deal with you. Whining and complaining will only serve to push you further down my list. That’s right, I am a follower of BOFH practices 🙂

I even had one user blow up at me for “being in her office”. Not entirely sure how I was supposed to replace the computer without going in. Perhaps she expected me to reach in through the window with my extendible arms? Oh, and the 50Gb of files you’d saved on your C: drive? Already moved to the new machine. You’re welcome.

I did have one user yesterday however who commented that she absolutely loves her whizzy new machine with the new Office suite, and how all her personal email folders etc were present and working, and that she owes me cake. Which, for this tired and grumpy sysadmin, kind of makes up for some of the other shitness 🙂

So, what could I have done better? Well, I think documentation for the new system should have been better. Not full documentation (there are help files for that), but just a handful of top ten issues/FAQs that users are likely to have. Unfortunately I left that to other members of the IT team, who neglected to help. I also think the project would have progressed more rapidly if I didn’t have to continually pick up and deal with neglected support calls.

Anyway, 100 new machines are pretty much in, now I’m off for a quick shower before I load up on caffeine and start to focus on the remaining hundred or so in-place migrations.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Work