Friday, December 7, 2007

Typical job description for an IT Manager

I received an email from Career Builder today for an IT Manager position here in the LA area. It was posted by Gary from in NJ. It is so typical of what is expected of an IT Manager and so close to what I already do that I wanted to include excerpts here with a few comments.

Position Description: Provides support for hardware and software requirements for employees including coordination among multiple sites. Will supervise two IT professionals, but must also be a hands-on individual contributor. Will work closely with the ERP Manager to coordinate and optimize system interfaces. Serve as project lead for new technical initiatives. Position reports to the CFO.

Experience and Job Requirements: General Requirements and Responsibilities: Minimum 7 years experience as an Information Technology professional; Minimum 2 years of supervision; Strong leadership skills; Strong organizational, prioritizing and planning skills to work in a multi-task environment; Able to communicate technical explanations effectively at all levels within the company.

Server and Network Infrastructure Experience: Windows Server 2000 and 2003 including Active Directory, Group Policy, DNS, DHCP; Strong experience with LAN/WAN technologies such as TCP/IP, HTTP, VLAN, routing; Managing a multi-site environment including Active Directory replication and file sharing; Lotus Domino 7 with Lotus Notes database application and design; Knowledge of Microsoft SQL Server, Sharepoint services and data warehouse tools.

Client and Software Experience: Multi-vendor software installation and support; PC imaging with Windows Deployment Services; Skilled with Cisco wireless network design, security and management; Microsoft Office Applications; Provide hands-on management for all hardware and software technologies.

Technology Management & Planning: Must balance and meet project deadlines and ad hoc support requirements; Experience in project management utilizing Microsoft and network best practices; New employee orientation/setup; Evaluate new products to improve processes and solve issues; Manage everyday IT purchases and contribute to annual budgeting process.

Educational Requirements: Bachelor's degree in a business related field (preferably in Computer Information Systems or Management Information Systems).

Except for the Lotus Notes requirement you could almost take this job description and drop it into my current job. The position is in Gardena CA and pays between 70K and 100K depending on experience. Not a bad gig for Gardena where the median income is less than 40K. Gardena is home to several manufacturers and one of the largest printing companies in the United States.

What do you think? Are there only a dozen or perhaps hundreds of qualified individuals who could meet these job requirements? I wonder who the employer is?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My first experience with a uCertify Exam

So I decided to download, install and register the complementary uCertify exam. I chose 70-291, Implementing, Maintaining and Managing a MS Windows 2003 Network Infrastructure. That took about five minutes. It was easy to install and get started. The opening screen presents a series of tests, beginning with a fifteen question pretest. I took the pretest.

Immediately I was transported back to the last time I took a Microsoft exam and was reminded of why I hate them so much. The exam questions make you wade through a bunch of introductory verbiage that is totally superfluous to the question being answered. uCertify has done a great job of making their questions just like the real ones.

The pretest covered each of the areas that are covered in the final exam: IP addressing, RRAS, DNS, infrastructure and security. With fifteen questions and thirty minutes you have about two minutes to read the question, understand it, review the multiple choice answers and make a correct choice. Some questions have more than one correct answer.

The diagnostic pretest had some of the drag and drop and 'click on the correct spot on this screen' type of questions. It didn't seem too hard but then I hadn't studied or reviewed the material in over a year. You can configure the test for a learning mode which allows you to see the correct answer right away and adjust your answer accordingly.

Feeling brave, I chose to do the full test simulation and get my score at the end of the test. As I went though it I had to review in my mind if some of the acronyms were valid and what function some of the server utilities were designed to accomplish. DHCP, DNS, subnets, SAP, GPO (lots of GPO questions) reminded me that being an MCSE is really learning a new language.

So far, my impression of uCertify is similar to using TestKing or Transcender, two other test preparation companies that I have used in the past. Would I recommend the product? So far, yes. Will it help me pass the test? I'll tell you after I pass it. Right now I'm going to go back and take another diagnostic pretest since I failed the first one with a score of 533 out of 630 required.

Have you had any experience with uCertify? Is one test prep company as good as any other?

Now that's a harsh review of Vista

CNET UK has a story on Vista that finally says what a lot of us have been thinking all year: Vista sucks! There is simply no reason to upgrade. Here is another reason to stick with XP: Windows XP with SP3 outperforms Windows Vista with SP1.

This Vista review made the number one story on Digg this morning. It also gathered a ton of comments. A lot of other professional Windows supporters must feel the same way. I wrote previously how some of my fellow techies are making a buck by removing Vista.

Quoting from the review: "Any operating system that provokes a campaign for its predecessor's reintroduction deserves to be classed as terrible technology.

"Any operating system that quietly has a downgrade-to-previous-edition option introduced for PC makers deserves to be classed as terrible technology.

"Any operating system that takes six years of development but is instantly hated by hordes of PC professionals and enthusiasts deserves to be classed as terrible technology. Windows Vista conforms to all of the above.

"Its incompatibility with hardware, its obsessive requirement of human interaction to clear security dialogue box warnings and its abusive use of hated DRM, not to mention its general pointlessness as an upgrade, are just some examples of why this expensive operating system earns the final place in our terrible tech list."

Wow! That's quite a scathing review. I agree with all the points but my heart goes out to Microsoft or more accurately to the product managers, the designers, the programmers, the marketing team and all the Microsofties that put so much of their lives into a product that will be forever classified in the same category as Windows Me.

What do you think? Was that a harsh review or did Vista and Microsoft deserve it?

IT Managers who are also webmasters

I've never worked for a large company. Well, I take that back - Ingram Micro is a large company but when I worked for them back in the day they were very small. Most of my career has been in a small IT shop where I am the only computer guy or one of a small group of two or three or four computer guys.

I like that arrangement because I get to wear a lot of hats. One of those hats is the webmaster. I wouldn't say that I'm a really good graphic artist. In fact, I would say that graphic design is not one of my creative strengths. Don't get me wrong - I know good design when I see it. I just haven't been able to produce it myself on a consistent basis.

That's why when it came time for a new Web site for my employer, I didn't mind when we decided to farm it out to an outside agency. Of course, I and my associate computer guy will end up maintaining it in Dreamweaver just like we do our current Web site. The new site looks cool with all the Flash animation. You would think I would have learned Flash by now.

Well, I know for those who use it every day that Flash is simple stuff. But most of my day is spent putting out fires and helping the employees use their computers. I'm amazed sometimes at the simple stuff that my co-workers don't know about Windows or how files are stored on servers or how they can access their email from off-site. You know - basic stuff.

See, that's my point. What's basic stuff to me, a certified network engineer, is a mysterious world to my co-workers who only use a computer to communicate. Likewise, the world of graphic design is a mysterious world to me, a man of many hats. It takes a lot of patience to create all those little Flash illustrations. I know because I've tied.

So even though I am the webmaster, don't ask me to create you an award-winning Web site. I'll maintain it for you once it gets designed, but my web work is basic stuff. I don't feel bad about that because I add so much value to the company in all the other areas in which I am an expert. I love what I do and appreciate the variety - including working with outside designers.

What do you think? Can an IT guy be an exceptional webmaster as well as a great engineer?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An Ultra Mobile PC to get excited about

I'm not a real gadget junkie. In fact, I'm somewhat of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to implementing new hi-tech devices like iPods or iPhones into my network. I see them as an intrusion on my security.

But I saw a new device today that just blows my socks off. And what's better is that I saw an immediate application for our flight crews. It's a palm-sized mobile PC from OQO. The display is amazingly clear for a 5" screen running 800 x 480.

I know, we've seen palm-sized computers already that have not flown but this one seems to have what it takes. It's a full Windows compatible computer - XP Pro or Vista Business. It fits into what's called the UMPC category - Ultra Mobile PC.

We have several flight crews who carry a tablet PC and use it to replace their Flight Engineer's bag of maps and charts and books. It's called Jeppview and even though it is a big step up from the cumbersome charts and maps, a tablet PC is still too big.

The beauty of the OQO is that it runs just about any software that runs on a regular Windows PC because, well, it is a regular Windows PC, just a whole lot smaller and lighter - one pound with the standard three hour battery.

The OQO 02 is slightly larger than a 3-inch by 5-inch index card and is 1 inch deep, meaning it fits comfortably into a jeans back pocket or the inside jacket pocket of a sports coat. It has a 5-inch screen that slides up to reveal a full thumb-keyboard.

It comes with a 1.6GHz CPU, 1GB memory and 120GB of storage. It has built-in broadband wireless using the EV-DO network as well as standard 802.11g and bluetooth. An optional docking station allows quick and easy connection to a full size display, keyboard, mouse, and wired Ethernet.

Maybe I'm a little behind the times. Have you seen this baby before and if so, what do you think?

Monday, November 19, 2007

What does it take to stick with a job?

I have been a job hopper most of my career. I admit it. I've always had my eye out for the next best thing. I'm an expert on working the job boards. I've figured out how to get more responses from Dice and Career Builder than I could ever use. I have a list of agencies from all around the world who send me job listings for which I am at least partially qualified. If I wanted to start a new job next year I'm sure I could shake the trees and have something lined up in a few weeks.

I don't think that's bragging. I just think that's the miracle of modern technology at work. Job hunting is easier than ever for a qualified technician. If you have a specialty on some hot piece of software or are a good Java developer you could probably name your price. In my opinion, if you have a good track record and are good at what you do, there's not much to stop you today from moving on in your career if that's what you want to do.

For the most part my strategy of changing jobs every few years has always paid off. Because of my entrepreneurial spirit, I attack a new job with gusto, get the projects lined up, figured out and completed usually within two years. In my current position I finished my project list in less than six months after I came on board (OK, now I'm bragging). My point is that I have enjoyed changing jobs because of the challenge, the salary increases and the new technology. If you need any evidence of my propensity to change jobs just check out my Linked-In profile.

I'm not so interested in changing jobs any more. Why? No, it's not because I'm getting older and it's not because I wouldn't enjoy the challenge. In fact, I was offered a job not more than six months ago right in my home town that included everything I thought I was looking for: a pay increase, no commute, a company that needed my skills and good people with whom to work. So why did I turn it down? I stayed because the CEO told me he needed me and he meant it.

Now some headhunters would tell me I was crazy to believe my boss. "He just told you that to get you to stay while he is looking for your replacement." Nick Corcodilos has often said, "Never, ever accept a counter-offer. The reasons for your dis-satisfaction will still be there six months from now." Well, it's been six months and I couldn't be happier with my choice. Sure, the boss sweetened the deal but something else has changed that is more important.

I don't feel like just a techie any more. There comes a point in your career where trusted relationships are more important than money, working with the latest technology or having a big training budget. Those things are nice, but when you are treated like and feel like a trusted part of the management team, than you've earned my loyalty. I guess what I'm saying is there are just times when you have to look beyond the technology and consider who you are helping.

What do you think? Am I nuts for staying on a job longer than the customary two to three year time frame of most techies today? Have a got a rare thing going here or should I keep those job interviewing skills hot?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How do you prepare for Microsoft Exams?

I started managing networks before there were certifications. Novell Netware was the defacto server OS back in the day. Yep, 1983 was when I was first exposed to Netware, which had just been announced. Did you know that Netware used to be called Sharenet? We installed ARCNet topology in those early days.

In 1995, after more than ten years of managing Netware servers on 10-Base2 (thin coax) and Token-Ring networks, it became clear that Novell was losing ground quickly to Microsoft with NT 3.5 on 10-BaseT. I started installing and supporting NT just when I was getting serious about pursuing certification on Netware.

Instead I began to prepare for Microsoft certification. This was back in the days when there was only one Novell cert - CNE, and one Microsoft cert - MCSE. Even though there are millions of Microsoft Certified System Engineers now, becoming an MCSE is not an easy thing. There are six major exams at $125 each, each one with 40 to 60 difficult questions.

After supporting NT for about five years, I received over 200 hours of Microsoft Approved training from a Certified Technical Education Center (CTEC). After long days at work, I took classes almost every evening for three months which cost thousands of dollars. The only problem is that it did not prepare me for the exams like I thought it would.

Microsoft exams are a tricky mixture of academic and real-world scenarios. I had the real world experience but could not always explain the academic reasons behind why something worked a certain way. My learning style is hands-on and always has been. Put me in front of the console and I'll figure it out, but ask me to explain it, especially in non-technical terms and I sometimes struggle.

So I started looking for some tools to help me pass the MCSE exams. Any Google search will reveal dozens of websites offering study guides and practice exams to help you pass the MCSE tests. I confess that I used 'braindumps' to pass my NT 4.0 exams. Braindumps are web sites where those who just took the exam will post the questions they remember and their answers.

Of course, the disadvantage to braindumps is that the questions are not always remembered accurately and the answers will sometimes be wrong. When I updated my MCSE training in 2005-2006 I very much appreciated the fact that in addition to the additional 200+ hours of classroom training, the instructor would use questions from TestKing training materials.

I started taking the Server 2003 exams last year and have been thinking about investing in some TestKing test preparation material. That's why I was pleased to respond to an offer from uCertify to evaluate their study guides and test exams. I assumed their questions would be like Testking questions, many of which come right from actual exams.

According to Roger Stuart at uCertify, "We do not provide actual exam questions, instead we encourage the users to learn and practice with lots of challenging questions in an environment that simulates the actual exam. Our PrepKits consist of study notes, articles, how tos and exam tips besides the questions. So I think that they should not be compared with Testking, but they will definitely help you pass the exams."

I'm contemplating whether to invest the hours in using their materials. What do you think?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Would you pay to remove Vista?

I looked out the front door of my home office a few minutes ago and saw a little car with this magnetic sign on the side: "Why pay hourly? Flat Rate Computer Services"

Being the curious sort of fellow that I am I went to their Web site and was amazed to see that someone is now selling their services to remove Vista. This can't be good publicity for Microsoft.

From the Flat Rate Computer Pros Web site:

Is Microsoft Vista Driving you CRAZY?
Just when you got used to XP, they changed it.
Wish you had XP on that new machine?
Save your sanity SPECIAL!
Remove Vista and install Windows XP on your machine for one FLAT RATE!
Only $150!

I wonder if one of my neighbors is having his copy of Vista removed right now? Just yesterday one of the other managers at the airport asked me for a laptop with Vista. When I submitted it to management for approval the answer came back a resounding no.

I'm glad the boss has been listening and reading my emails. I've told him that I do not intend to update any of the 120 company computers to Vista in 2008 - maybe 2009 when I can't buy XP anymore but not 2008. There's just no good reason to update that I have found.

Microsoft, call me. Convince me that I should sell the boss on Vista. Where are the advantages to outweigh the disadvantages? Why shouldn't we wait for Windows 7, due out in 2010?

Update: Isn't technology amazing? I emailed Daniel at the address on his web site to let him know that I had written a post about his business. When he was done fixing my neighbors computer he came over and asked if I had emailed him. We met, talked and I even got to know my neighbor a little better. Daniel's services were highly recommended by my neighbor. See, technology does help you connect.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Leadership in technology is all about people

One of my favorite headhunters after Nick Corcodilos is Marc Cenedella. He runs The Ladders, a high-end search firm that deluges my mailbox with an email at least every day, sometimes several times a day. Of course he is in business to make money and is always asking me to subscribe to the features I will find on the 'professional' side of his Web site.

Marc has the modern technology marketing concept down. His emails are filled with great content and I find myself reading them even though I am not in the market for a new job. For example, today I received a post from Marc with a great article written by Carmine Gallo who has apparently written and published a book called "Fire Them Up!: 7 Simple Secrets to Inspire Your Colleagues, Customers and Clients."

Here are the seven secrets:

1. Demonstrate Enthusiasm - Constantly.
2. Articulate a Compelling Course of Action.
3. Sell the Benefit.
4. Tell More Stories.
5. Invite Participation.
6. Reinforce an Optimistic Outlook.
7. Encourage Potential.

You'll have to go to his Web site to read more about these secrets. I found myself thinking about my current boss and many of my past bosses over the life of my career. I've worked for a lot of good men and women but sadly, can only think of one or two that really demonstrated leadership.

They may have been a good manager and had skill in one of the above areas but I have never found anyone who did all these things. I wish there were more people who exhibited leadership in the business world. It is sadly lacking and needed, especially in today's work environment.

I've made it a personal mission to try to improve in the seven areas that Mr. Gallo enumerates in dealing with co-workers, sub-ordinates or other professionals. I've determined over the years that it doesn't matter how much I know about technology. What really matters is how people use the technology and how they feel about it.

What do you think? Would you like to see a little more leadership in your workplace?

Use Small Business Server to full advantage

In the last few weeks I've received several calls asking for assistance with Small Business Server. In each case I have been amazed to discover that the businesses were running SBS either without Exchange Server enabled or with it crippled in some way. Microsoft has done a good job of selling SBS and it is an awesome deal, but apparently the VARs who have been selling and installing it have not done as good a job. Why? Do they not know how to use or configure all the features or is it because they can't convince the SMB to put them in place?

I'm referring specifically to the idea of hosting your own email server. It's not hard to do and I can't figure out why anyone wouldn't want to take advantage of it. The benefits are many. You have total control over your email. You never have to wonder if something got blocked in the spam blocker of your ISP. You can use Outlook Web Access to reach your email from anywhere. You can take advantage of all the benefits of a common shared or Global Address List (GAL). You can use ActiveSync to push your email out to mobile devices.

There are three basic requirements to hosting your email server safely and effectively. First get a great spam filter for Exchange Server. I always recommend Commtouch but you can also go with GFI Mail Security. I have also installed and used Freedom9 Freeguard at some clients. Commtouch is an outside service, GFI Mail Security runs on the Exchange Server and the Freeguard firewall does spam filtering or marking - you can either drop it completly or send it to the mailboxes (my preference) marked as spam and run rules to send it to a spam folder.

The second requirement is to have your ISP change your MX record so all email destined for your domain is sent directly to your Exchange Server. Now do you see why you MUST have a good spam filter in place first? Did you know that 95% of unfiltered email is spam? That can be quite a shock if you have been relying on your ISP to filter your spam for you. My home ISP uses Barracuda and it still struggles even though I've been training it for years. It will send things though that I know I've told it not to and stop things that I have previously cleared.

The third requirement in hosting your own email server is to set up a reverse DNS record with your ISP. This is especially important if you plan to send a lot of emails out through your Exchange Server like a weekly email newsletter to a large mailing list. Without the reverse DNS lookup configured properly with the word mail in their somewhere you will soon end up on the RBL (Real-time Black List) of the spam databases like Spamhaus, Spamcop and Spamcannibal. There are at least 100 spam databases out there. You do NOT want to get listed on any one of them because it a pain to get removed. You can check if you're listed on DNS Stuff.

What do you think? Has my experience been unique or do most SBS users host their own SMTP email on their Exchange Server?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Can you produce emails under legal order?

Awhile back we had a little 'situation' in our organization where we needed to be able to produce copies of emails sent or received by several of our employees. I thought I had it handled and that it would be no problem. I do two backups of our Exchange server each night - one of the entire Information Store (the database) and one of the individual mailboxes (aka brick level).

I have a twenty-day tape rotation and pull a tape once a month so I figured the chances of being able to reproduce the emails would be fairly high. Just pull a tape from the month-end after the time period in question, restore it to a recovery database and viola - there are the emails. The only problem is that the emails weren't there.

What happened? I know they were sent because I could see the headers on my Exchange Server tracking log which I had turned on long ago. I could even see log entries on my SMTP gateway log in Symantec AV for SMTP gateways. I had also turned that log on long ago. I was scratching my head for days all the while under the gun from the boss and the attorneys.

Here's what happened. The employee in question was a high-level executive who had done some social engineering with the IT Manager - me. I got took by a trusted employee because she sweet-talked me into revealing how emails could be permanently deleted in Exchange using a little known feature in OWA - the MS Outlook web client.

As soon as an email was sent or received by the employee that they didn't want tracked, they would delete it and then empty their deleted items folder. Then they would go into the OWA client into the options section and click on the 'View Items' in the 'Recover Deleted Items' section. From there you select the items and then click on 'Permanently Delete'.

You see, normally I have a 30-day window when any employee can recover their own deleted items or I can do it for them. This feature of Exchange is not turned on by default but I have found it very useful. I can't tell you how many times an employee has asked me to help them recover a deleted email before I turned this feature on so they could do it themselves.

If you do the permanent delete right away or at least before the end of the day when I do the nightly backup the items will not be saved. The trick is to catch it before the nightly backup. Otherwise I could still recover them from tape. I would have never revealed that little trick to just any employee but why should I question what a long-term trusted executive asked of me?

Well, that will never happen again. I have now put into place a new archive mailbox and turned on a feature in the Information Store that copies every single piece of email - in or out of the company or even intra-company - to this mailbox. Yes, it grows extraordinarily fast. I have to archive it off to a PST file and purge it at the end of every month or it would be unmanageable.

So now I can produce on demand any email from any employee and any time period even if it was deleted immediately. Yes, it even copies the porn, the jokes, the videos, the personal emails, everything except the spam. 99% of our spam is stopped by Commtouch before it gets to our Information Store. That's a fairly bulletproof backup solution if I say so myself.

Friday, November 9, 2007

PC Auditing made simple

One of my favorite system administrator tools is AuditWizard from Layton Technology. I found it a few years back and used it at a previous employer. When I came to my present employer I bought a 50-computer license because they told me that's how many computers I would be supporting. I quickly upgraded that to a 100-computer license and finally to 500 computers.

One of the things I like about it is that I can keep a history of my inventory. Every system administrator knows that there are always a dozen or more PCs floating around that aren't in actual productive use at the moment. So even though we really only have 80 to 100 computers that are in use and that I support, I have records of 120 computers in my database.

Some have been pressed back into service as a quasi-server, others to an unused back office where they are used more as a Terminal Server client or for guests to check email. Most are sitting on the bench awaiting an upgrade or repair before being redeployed for some function or as a spare when someone has a failure. My point is that I know exactly what I have on hand.

How does it work? Quite simply. The software is installed in a public folder on a server that can be reached by all workstations no matter what location or subnet they are on. I then modify the network logon script to require every workstation to run the auditing software in the background upon bootup. Yes, it adds about 5-10 seconds to the boot process but is well worth the annoyance to me.

What does it do for me? It saves me hours and hours of work that I don't enjoy and on which I have a hard time keeping up. The automatic audit records just about everything about the computer you could possibly need to know - hardware configuration, software installed, serial numbers, web browser cache, network addresses, patch history and lots more.

I have a policy of installing corporate licenses of software when I need it. At the end of the year I take an inventory by simply running a report in Audit Wizard and noting the difference between how many licenses I have consumed and how many we own. Submit the report to management and after a little grumbling and a small purchase we are legit again. Licensing compliance has never been simpler.

I use it almost daily. The report generator is excellent but tends to add a lot of fluff by spreading things out over too many pages. So I export to Excel, tweak it a little and I can tell you at the push of a button which computers need to have their memory upgraded this month or which are running low on hard drive space. It's a pretty slick piece of software.

I checked out lots of different pieces of auditing software before I found this one. I highly recommend it. What do you think? What PC auditing software do you use?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

IP Telephony in the SMB

For years our Cisco VAR has been trying to get us to go to an IP phone system. I trust our reseller but kept asking him when he was going to put in his own IP system. Finally he did and the stakes got serious. "Come on, Tim. You could save your company thousands of dollars a year by putting in VoIP." Being the cautious guy that I am, I investigated several competitors, read their literature and listened to their sales pitches. I got several quotes and yes, the estimates bore out his claims. We probably could save thousands of dollars a year mainly because we have VPNs with remote locations.

So why did we sign another contract with AT&T, who now manages our local services which used to be provided by SBC and PacBell before that? Fear of change. Yep. No matter how persuasive it looked on paper I could not convince management that it would sound just as good to our clients. Given the type of clients we handle I can understand that saving $25,000 or even $50,000 was nothing compared to the fear of losing a client that generates millions of dollars in annual revenue. Besides, AT&T lowered our prices by bundling local and long distance together.

Now don't get me wrong. We will eventually go to IP Telephony and it may be sooner than management thinks. Why? Because we are running a 15-year old Panasonic DBS 72 hybrid phone system that could crash any day. The voice mail system is just as old - an Active Voice Replay Plus running in DOS on a 486. A 486? Yes, a 486! I swear someone did a great job of selling Active Voice systems back in the early 90's. I have managed the same system at each of the four companies I have worked for in the past 12 years.

So what was management so concerned about? Latency and Jitter. Gamers know latency as lag and jitter is the recompilation of packets in an order that can make speech unintelligible. I get a lot of calls from third-world call centers when I call for tech support. I don't intentionally call India but that's where it ends up. Most of these tech support centers are running VoIP and to me, it is very noticeable. I can understand why management is concerned if all VoIP calls sound like some I've had to put up with lately. But we put up with bad cell phone calls, don't we?

And yet management can be funny about wanting cost savings on fixed costs like phone bills. At one time I had to respond to requests from several managers as to why we weren't using Skype to communicate with our flight crews. Supposedly there are 250 million registered Skype users with as many as 10 million on line at any one point in time. Do you remember what happened to Skype on Aug 16th 2007? The network failed for two days due to so many users rebooting their systems after applying the regularly scheduled Microsoft security patches on patch Tuesday.

The FCC offers a great web site for educating the public about VoIP. How Stuff Works has a good multi-part article online that explains VoIP in simple enough terms that I could even recommend it to some of the management team. Pay special attention to part 8, the disadvantages to VoIP. Unlike regular phone service, VoIP depends on local power. And of course there is always Wikipedia for a fairly in-depth look at the topic.

What do you think? If you are in a small business, have you implemented VoIP yet?

Monday, November 5, 2007

The truth about Windows Vista adoption

I read a great article this morning in Jason Hiner's Tech Sanity Check on Tech Republic about Windows Vista adoption in business. I have long been wondering how Microsoft could be claiming that Vista sales are brisk. I am not seeing that in my own experience as an IT Manager of an SMB - Small to Medium Business. The article points out three areas in which Windows Vista sales are flourishing but concludes as I do from my own personal experience that Vista is not being deployed in the corporate environment in big numbers yet.

First there are the laptop sales, 95% of which come preloaded with some flavor of Windows Vista. The PC Industry on the whole is experiencing a 10% increase in computer sales over last year and a large part of those are laptops. Laptops, more appropriately called notebook computers account for more than 55% of all new hardware sales these days.

So the largest part of those Vista sales Microsoft is claiming come from all those laptops. I have seen that in my own experience as more users ask me to work on their personal laptops, which are running Vista. Yes, I still work on employee computers - can't seem to get away from it. If they connect to my network via a VPN I have a vested interest to make sure they are secure.

The next big chunk of Vista sales come from upgrades. Every early adopter of Vista I know has upgraded from the Home Basic version to the Home Premium or Ultimate, or better yet to Vista Business, usually at my urging. That's a no-brainer. But Microsoft's claim of high sales of Vista into Corporate America has long been surprising to me until now.

It appears that many large enterprises are renewing their corporate licensing agreements which includes provisions for future upgrades of the desktop OS to Vista. In other words, they are buying Vista on paper but not actually deploying it this year or maybe not even planning to do so next year. Like me, many have concluded to roll out Vista only when they have to due to either an inability to purchase XP or due to the unavailability of XP support from Microsoft.

Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but I just don't see what business benefits Windows Vista brings to our network. In fact, to me, the new security features are a hindrance to implementing the OS. I hate having to answer yes five times when I want to install a piece of software. Like Jason points out in the article, Microsoft has simply tried to transfer culpability to users for letting malware into a system. Why introduce another level of complexity for security?

Conclusion: We will not be rolling out Vista in the workplace until probably 2009 when most of our desktops are due for a normal tech refresh.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Where do you buy your laptop memory?

We probably have two dozen laptops in use among our executive, management and sales staff. As all computers do, laptops get old and slow with the growth of a bloated and patched operating system - Windows XP Pro. In order to extend the life of our laptops from three to five years I have been adding more memory where they are not already maxed out. XP Pro runs much better on 1GB than on 512MB and don't even think about running Vista on less than 1GB.

I buy from several vendors on a regular basis for computers, monitors, printers, disk drives, memory, software, office machines and supplies. One vendor that I like for laptop hard drives and memory is Kahlon. While their prices are not the rock bottom, they are reasonable, they have a great web site that is easy to navigate and fairly comprehensive and they provide great customer service. Shipping is not an issue for me as they are just a few miles away in Orange County.

As an example of their great customer service, I was having trouble confirming that a certain piece of Kahlon memory was compatible with the recommended part from HP which of course was literally ten times as much. I kid you not. The price for the same piece of memory on HP's online store was $309 and was only $34 on Kahlon. I emailed a request to confirm that it would work and had an answer within a few hours. What's more the memory worked when it arrived a few days later. Now that's good customer service.

I recommend Kahlon as a great source for laptop memory, hard drives and batteries.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Ziggs, Xing, Nayms, Ryze and ZoomInfo

Have you ever heard of these networking sites: Ziggs, Xing, Nayms, Ryze, Konnects or ZoomInfo? Except for ZoomInfo I hadn't either until recently but I joined them all today. I have been pushing my freelance consulting business and decided to do some online networking. I'm already a member of Linkedin, Technorati, Dice and a few other social networking sites, but I'm trying to focus the ones that are geared towards professionals and not teenagers - like MySpace or FaceBook.

It would be nice if there were some way to upload the information once to each of these sites but they all have their own interface. The best I can do is copy and paste from one to the other. I liked the automatic bio creator on Ziggs. You fill in a few pertinent pieces of information and does the rest. The result is a professional looking bio with career history, your educational background and a family or personal summary. I've always wanted something like that.

What do you think? Are online networking sites replacing traditional social networks?

Update: I also joined ecademy, but discovered that everyone who wanted to connect with me was in England. The same goes for Xing - everyone there seems to be in Germany.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Classroom Spy in the enterprise?

We have long been searching for a piece of software that will let multiple users in our network view over the LAN what's running on one specific computer. This will save us licensing fees to run the same software (Flight Explorer) on all workstations. After a long search of various scenarios - split video signals going to multiple large-screen wall-mount monitors - we found and have decided upon a most unusual solution. We found a piece of software called Classroom Spy Professional. One of its many features is that it allows a master computer - the teacher - to push a video signal out to dozens of other computers over the LAN. The users can view that screen in a small window or on a second monitor.

This seems like a most unlikely piece of software to be used in a professional enterprise environment. Why? Because it is classified as spyware. I had to add an exception to our global anti-virus rules in Symantec AV Corporate. In fact this is the third piece of software I have had to add to the exceptions list. We use another piece of software called Track4Win to monitor the web sites our employees visit. The third piece is IPScan from Angry Ziber. It is a great little network tool that quickly allows the network admin to see all IP addresses in use in a subnet.

I wonder why Symantec classifies as spyware three great tools that help me do my job.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Does everybody really need their own printer?

I was travelling most of the day yesterday to visit family out of state for the weekend. While driving I carried on an ongoing email dialog on my Treo with an associate who was helping to troubleshoot a printer issue in one of our offices with a large open floor of employees. We have two network printers there and you would think that the employees in that office would have no problem getting up from their desks and walking a few feet to the printer when they need their documents.

As he was carrying a replacement printer to the office he was stopped by employees in another department asking if he had any spare personal printers that they could use in their office. Now these employees also have a couple of network printers less than ten steps from any desk in the office. What is it with these people? Is it so hard to get up to get your printout? At what point is a personal printer justified in a small office environment?

Of course the right answer to these kinds of request is, "Of course you may have your own personal printer. Just shoot me an email request and I'll get your boss to sign off on it. Once she approves it we'll forward to the CEO for final authorization." Almost always the employee will respond, "never mind." The same response works well for requests for larger monitors - do you really need a 23" monitor - and for a yet another faster computer.

Managing those pesky users is a major part of the job for an IT Manager.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Is prepaid tech support really necessary?

We run three mobile email servers - Exchange with ActiveSync, Goodlink from Good Technology (now Motorola) and BlackBerry from RIM. Only BlackBerry wants us to pay in advance each year for tech support that we have never used. It's not cheap either.

I was amused when RIM sent a renewal invoice for the annual tech support. The prices were in English pounds sterling. So I emailed back and asked, "how much is that in US Dollars?" They sent me an email thanking them for contacting tech support and promising to get back to me within 24 hours.

Several days later I receive another email from RIM saying that they have provided me with a new quote in US Dollars. I email back and ask, "so where is it?" They had forgotten to attach it. They email back thanking me once again for contacting tech support. Several days later I receive another email asking if I'm going to renew our annual tech support.

By now I'm getting tired of this. I email back informing them that they neglected to send me a quote that I can use. They thank me for contacting tech support. I finally get a quote in another email and discuss it with management. We decide that it is not worth the $1,200 fee for something we haven't used in the past year. It smacks of 'protection money'.

What do you think? Is prepaid tech support worth it? I figure if the server ever goes down I can switch the BlackBerry users to a Smart Phone or reinstall the server software. Maybe if we had hundreds or thousands of BlackBerry users I would feel differently but we only have a dozen. Almost all our mobile email users have switched to BlackJacks with ActiveSync.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I just love RAID and hot-swap drives

One of the drives on our Exchange Server went bad over the weekend. Luckily I had a spare on hand and was able to get the array rebuilt right away. That’s the good thing about RAID. You can lose a drive and still keep running. That’s also the good thing about hot swap drives. You can replace one with the power on and nobody notices the server came that close to suffering a catastrophic meltdown. I just hope I can still get a replacement for the old 36GB hot swap drive so I can have a spare on hand.

I would never run a major server like an Exchange server or a SQL server without RAID and hot-swap drives. We also run redundant and hot-swap power supplies and fans on those critical servers. We exclusively use HP Proliant servers and have been for many years. Yes, it costs a little bit more than your no-name clone but I'm not about to trust our critical email and accounting systems to anything less reliable. I suppose if I worked in a larger shop I would find Dells but in every small business I worked at for the past twelve years, we've used HP servers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Techie in a non-tech environment

I read a great article on Dice this morning. For those who don't know, Dice is the premier site for guys like me who want to keep their finger on the pulse of what skills are in demand. It's a job board first, but provides a lot more than that. This article is an example of why I still visit Dice everyday even though I'm not actively seeking employment. I even have Dice send me daily emails of new jobs posted in my neck of the woods.

Times must be good because on some days there are a dozen or more new listings within ten miles of the small little town of Camarillo CA where I live. Some listings are obvious attempts to suck in new applicants to fill the pool of the new headhunter. Most are attempts to find someone with that obscure skill that most tech guys like me will probably never have.

The writer of the article describes his life as a techie in a non-tech world. I was interested because that's exactly how I spend my day as the IT Manager for a very non-tech company. I was surprised by his take on the whole situation. Instead of focusing on the benefits of being the top tech dog, he described why it was not for him. Apparently he missed the feedback from other techies that he used to get in his previous job. I've gone through that too but as I get older I realize that the perks of such a position far outweigh the downside that he writes about.

For example, I just love going into a meeting to buy new hardware because usually the boss has already been convinced by other managers that the purchase is necessary. I may not be up on all the latest buzzwords and tech offerings but I do feel like a major contributor to the success of the company. While it's true that the boss usually has no interest in IT stuff, when it becomes obvious that the lack of his participation in the process will affect his ability to do business, he becomes very attentive.

The writer has a point that other department managers can be very naive and mistaken when it comes to what you can and can't do as an IT Manager. Yep, they tend to think that you are in charge of anything that uses electricity or that you talk into, but that's OK. I don't mind being the jack of all trades, especially since I use outside consultants for the heavy lifting when it comes to some very specialized technology. I guess it all depends on the company structure.

Working with a lot of other techno geeks is good when getting started in a career but eventually you need to stand on your own. It requires a little more research and digging to find exactly the right solution but that suits me just fine. There are a lot of people out there who could do the tech side on my job better than I do, but my contribution to problem solving and finding new ways to utilize one of our greatest assets - the flow of information - is richly rewarding.

The new server is installed!

We installed the new server yesterday. It has new disk drive technology on it that I have not seen or used before. The drives are very small - the 2.5" size that are used in laptops. They are still hot-swap so they cost an arm and a leg more. We set up the OS and the SQL Server transaction logs on their own mirrored sets on the server itself. For the data we had to go to an external storage enclosure which holds regular sized hot swap drives. The data drives are set up on RAID 1+0 - mirrored sets of a striped set. So even though the drives are 300GB each and we have eight of them, we only have 1.2TB of usable space. We split that into two logical drives of 558GB each - NTFS overhead takes up the rest.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The new rack is installed!

You know I must be a major geek when I get excited about a new server rack. But here it is. Isn't it a beauty? It's the empty black one on the left - an APC Netshelter. As you can see our old rack was not a standard size rack. The new rack is taller and deeper. The server, external storage enclosure, UPS and auxiliary battery unit are all in boxes in the server room today ready to be installed tomorrow. We have a new HP TFT7600 slide-out rack mount keyboard & monitor to take the place of the old desktop units that look so out of place in the old rack.

That's an Avocent 8-port KVM switch under the three HP Proliant servers in the old rack. We will continue to use it on the old rack since six servers are still on that side. You may be wondering what that aluminum duct is behind the new rack. We have an auxiliary portable air conditioner to help the underpowered wall unit we put in the server room last year. The wall unit was a disappointment. It was supposed to replace the portable AC but never did put out the advertised BTUs so we continued to use them both.

The old SQL server is the top unit in the old rack. It is an HP Proliant DL380 G3 - Dual Xeon 3.1Ghz processors, 1GB memory, 256GB RAID 5 storage. It is the most overloaded server I have ever worked with. I would never load it up this way. It was set up before I came on board. Not only is it running SQL Server 2000, it is also our master domain controller for Active Directory as well as our file and print server, DNS and WINS. It is an Application Server hosting our accounting system, our payroll system and our backup system - Symantec Backup Exec 11d with the LTO 3 tape attached. It runs our internet tracking database (yes, we automatically track everywhere our employees go) and our Jetnet database of available aircraft for sale.

I have tried to reduce the load by offloading DHCP, RRAS, SMTP Gateway, Anti-Virus and lots of other applications to other servers over the years. Talk about single point of failure. I wonder if my predecessor really understood how severs should be setup. Either he thought one server could handle everything or maybe he just didn't know how to get additional servers funded. This is the third new server I have added in the last two years. Next year I hope to put in new server hardware to support Exchange Server 2007.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Got Spam? Try Commtouch

When I came on board with my current company, we had a serious problem with spam that was only getting worse. My predecessor was trying to manage it with a Symantec product that was not designed to control spam but to keep viruses out. He was frantically trying to block subjects and addresses in a never-ending battle.

Some of the executives were so fed up with the onslaught of spam that they purchased and installed Cloudmark Safety Bar. That's not a cost effective solution for a small business. While it helped it did not block the spam before it got to them and they still had to see it before Cloudmark did its thing. I immediately researched the available products and services to find something better.

After much research I decided on Commtouch, which a lot of vendors I talk to still have not heard of even after several years. It seems to be a very well kept secret. I love the product and associated service. It does a wonderful job. Spam for the top email recipients dropped from hundreds of pieces of spam each day to maybe one or two. For most users it dropped from dozens to one or two a week. I think we pay less than $30 per user per year. It is a bargain.

It is also easy to manage and administer. The users can manage their own daily reports of what was blocked. They can either review the report or tell the system to stop sending it. Some want the report, others don't. It even has an Outlook plug-in but I recommend they don't use it because it makes the product perform just like Cloudmark. Why would they even want to see the spam? I say block it before it gets to your mailbox and cancel the daily report. The product is so accurate that I have literally had only one false positive in over two years.

The long-time employees respond that the product does miracles compared to the crap with which they used to have to put up. Unfortunately, the newer employees are spoiled. No anti-spam solution is 100% accurate, just like no anti-virus protection is perfect. We can go for weeks with no spam and then an outbreak will occur. The spammers hit upon some new method and it takes the blocking engine a few seconds to learn and block the mutation. In the meantime a few slip through. You would think a catastrophe had occurred the way some of the new employees respond. "Why, how could this happen? We've never seen this before!"

I feel like saying things like, "Get a life kids. Grow up. Find something else to complain about. Do your job and stop trying to do mine." But I would never say things like that. I just smile and email back, "I'm truly sorry you were inconvenienced by the single piece of spam that got through to your mailbox. Please accept my apologies for the integrity breach. I will inform the managers of the spam blocking system right away to make sure this never happens again."

At first they don't get it. Come on - spam happens. We get nearly a half million pieces of email a month. We have a 99.997% blocking rate. That's 50 pieces a day that still get through. Most of those go to the long-time employees but you are bound to eventually get one of them. Sheesh! I'm sure there are more expensive anti-spam solutions but I highly recommend Commtouch.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why does the DSL go out so often?

We have redundant internet connections at the office. The T1 is more reliable and I use it to keep our four remote locations connected via permanent VPNs. It is also our SMTP gateway and primary portal for incoming VPNs via RRAS. Our T1 service is fairly inexpensive - less than $300 a month for a full 1.5Mbs up and down from Speakeasy. It's the uplink speed that is important to us to get our email through the pipe as quickly as possible. We send a lot of large attachments - mainly photos of aircraft for sale.

In order to keep the T1 free for serious internet traffic (email and VPNs) I got an inexpensive ($60/month) DSL from DSL Extreme. It is 3Mbs down and 768K up. We don't need the uplink speed on the DSL but the users appreciate the quick downlink for their web searches. We do more and more business through the web these days - links to FAA sites and such. Unfortunately the DSL is not very reliable. It seems to go out every few days. It can be maddening. Sometimes it will work fine for a week and then it will fail two or three times in one day.

Today was one of those days. I few months ago I got tired of having to drive fifty miles into the office on a Saturday just to reset the DSL. The Saturday staff can't reset it for me because the server room is in a locked area behind the accounting office which is also locked. So I bought something called a PowerPal from DataProbe. It is a little $225 remote controlled power switch. It requires a phone line to access the remote on-off capabilities. I chose to have it on a dedicated line but you can piggyback on a FAX or modem line.

It is really simple to use. You just call the number and press a certain key in between the first and second ring. It can be programmed with a security code but I have never found it necessary. Once it hears the keypress it responds with a tone indicating if it is off or on. You then press another key and it does a 5-second power cycle, with a tone when it is back on. I have my DSL modem plugged into the PowerPal and so far, it has worked every time I have had to use it. It has saved me many trips into the office.

My only question is, why does the stupid DSL line go out so often? I have a similar problem on my DSL line at home through Verizon. It can go for months without any disconnects and then will experience outages every few days for a week or two. It's as if the ISP is reprogramming or resetting it on their end which somehow drops the signal on our end until the modem power is cycled. I don't know much about DSLAMs but you would think they have progressed to the point that someone in the local loop could be added or changed without messing everything up.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

You would think they would have learned

How many years have viruses and trojans been around? Ten at least, right? Maybe fifteen. Haven't most users at the executive level been computing about that long? You would think so. Then why is it that the users at that level are the most gullible when it comes to opening email that is questionable? Maybe it's because they get so much email that they just don't have time to think before opening - just open and look. Hmmm...nothing happened. I know, I'll forward it to the HR manager since it has the word resume in it. Great, another manager too busy to think. Why open an attachment from someone who said they saw our ad on Craigslist. Hey, we're not even advertising on Craigslist right now. And it's a zip file! Doh!

My whole day was shot today tracking down and eradicating this nasty trojan called Proxy-Agent.aj or Spam-Mailbot. The offending file is wmupdate.exe found in System32 but figuring that out took eight hours and a half dozen scans from every available anti-virus publisher. We run Symantec AV Corporate edition which includes protection at the SMTP gateway, on the Exchange server and at the desktop. But believe it or not, Symantec doesn't recognize this one. We pay big bucks for their protection. This one has been out since Dec 2005. You would think they would have it in their database by now, but no. The symptoms are continual pop-ups from Symantec Email Proxy saying, "Your email message to ... with the subject of ... was unable to be sent. Your email server rejected the message." Hundreds of the little buggers as long as you're connected to the internet.

I ran a full SAV scan on the workstation. It reports no malware. I download, install and run a full system scan of AVGFree. It finds nothing. A fresh update and scan of Spybot - also nothing. The same thing for Adaware - nothing. I know I'm not crazy. The pop-ups continue when I reconnect the workstation to the internet. Somebody has got to know about this. I know. I'll try TrendMicro House call. That has always worked in the past - nothing. The pop-ups continue. TrendMicro Sysclean, Sophos Anti-rootkit, CA eTrust - nothing. Ah, I forgot McAfee. Let's try that. They have a free online scan. Wow! It detected something, but won't remove it unless I fork over $39.95. Tough. They identified it so I just deleted it. It worked but I've wasted eight hours. I'm not happy with Symantec. Why didn't their products detect it?

Here is a link to more info on Experts Exchange. I found it after the fact by Googling craigslist. I wish I had thought to Google that at the beginning of the day. Live and learn.

Update: Symantec has a web page where you can advise them of new variants of viruses. That's apparently what we got. I guess someone has to be the first to get it, eradicate it and then advise them. These viruses mutate so rapidly that not even big companies like Symantec with all their resources can stay on top of it. Our Symantec reseller recommends we implement an Intrusion Prevention System (IPS). The better IPS products not only protect against well known attacks via signatures but can also detect and block previously unknown attacks such as protocol anomalies (non-RFC compliant protocol traffic).

Monday, October 8, 2007

A new server project was approved today!

The boss approved the purchase of a new server and rack today. We've outgrown our old SQL server and are moving up to a 1.2TB RAID 10 unit. It's an HP Proliant DL380 G5 Quad Core with 4GB of memory. We've been using RAID 5 for many years. The new RAID 10 should give us a major boost in performance for our new document management system that will reside on the new server next year. It requires an external storage enclosure for the RAID because there are 12 drives. That along with the UPS and second battery puts us at 9 rack units and I only have 8 available on the old rack. I'm also going to get a nice slide-out keyboard and monitor in the new rack which should provide lots of expansion for years to come.

It wasn't as hard a sell as I thought it would be. The CFO, Controller and I had done a lot of research into document management systems and had a lot of ammunition for the review meeting. But all the CEO wanted to know was why we needed it, why we needed it now and what would happen if we didn't buy it now. We are running SQL Server 2000 and support for that product expires in January of 2008 so we are going to SQL Server 2005. Our old SQL Server is running on hardware that is no longer in warranty and coincidentally, one of the drives in the array failed just this morning. We are getting server 2003 with software assurance so we can upgrade to server 2008 next year when it comes out. If only I had software assurance for my other 10 servers. That's going to be a big capital expenditure next year along with Vista on all the workstations, Office 2007 and Exchange Server 2007. I'm not convinced we need all that just yet. There just aren't enough compelling business advantages to drive the change.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

External logo for Outlook Signature blocks

This is real geeky stuff but it's what I do all day. We have had an ongoing problem with logos in Outlook Signatures being broken or missing. This is especially a problem for the executive staff who do lots of email from home. We'll set up their signature block to point to a local copy or a server copy of our logo.

Then somehow that logo will get deleted or moved or a mapped drive will fail to map on logon or something else will cause it to not work. There's nothing more unattractive and unprofessional than receiving an email from the CEO with a big red X where the company logo should be. In fact it can be downright embarrassing when trying to impress a new client.

So we decided to point the signature block address to a copy of our logo stored on our external web server. Then we just make sure that we have set up the signature properly on whatever machine the employee uses to access Outlook email - at work or at home or both. It even works great for our road warriors who live out of their laptops.

It really is quite simple. The signature block is simple HTML code. We don't like to create the signature directly in Outlook because it bloats the file and creates subfolders for the logo - or rather for a copy of the logo. So we create a lean and mean piece of code with an embedded link to the logo on the web server and put it in the right folder on the workstations.

By the way, that folder location is Docs & Settings \ Username \ Application Data \ Microsoft \ Signatures. Once you place the HTML file in the folder and turn on the signature block from within Outlook it automatically creates the .txt and .rtf versions of the file that it requires. Of course Outlook must be set to use HTML format when creating or responding to emails in order for the logo to show up.

Here is picture of the sample code that worked for us.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Is Rev Control really necessary in a small company?

We don't do much software development at my company. In fact, I would have to say that we don't do any at all. We use off-the-shelf packages that have been slightly customized by the VAR that sold them to us. When we need something modified, we contact them to update the SQL code or an occasional Crystal Report. I can do both, but I prefer to let the reseller take care of it in case there are dependencies that I might not know about.

Our web site is about the only thing we modify on a regular basis ourselves. We didn't design it but we sure do maintain it. Some weeks there are dozens of changes. Some weeks there are none. Most of the changes are content related - new aircraft listed for sale, new employment opportunities, an occasional aircraft added to our charter fleet - stuff like that. There are two of us that work on the website - me and the General Manager's son, who I am training.

When a user requests a change to the website they usually send us an email with the new content. If they try to do a verbal I insist they put in in writing so there are no assumptions or misunderstandings. Usually they send the changes to me and I decide if I will do the work or assign it to my associate. We have one user who insists on sending the request to both of us. I guess he figures his chances are better that it will get the attention he wants that way.

Unfortunately, this can cause some problems. I have trained my assistant to be responsive to requests like this since we are a service department and don't produce revenue. In other words, the employees are our customers. I work from home several days a week so I am rarely in the office at the same time as my co-worker. He is part-time so I schedule my time on-site to be when he is not there. This provides the best coverage for support issues.

I made a change to one section of the website last week and my associate made a change to the same area this week. Unfortunately, we duplicated effort - his post was added to mine and we ended up with the same entry twice with slightly different wording and layout. He was just being responsive to the user request and didn't realize that I had already done so. I suppose we could say it is the user's fault for sending the request to both of us but I would never do that.

My point is that even in a small organization where there are only two administrators, it helps to have some sort of revision control system in place, even if it's only a central log that is checked before updates are made. I can only imagine how complex it must get in a large enterprise with a few or even a dozen programmers working on the same website. Of course an alternative would be to assign different parts of the website to each of us but we just aren't that big.

Monday, October 1, 2007

In which we get slammed

"Slamming" is the illegal practice of changing a person's communications provider without permission, and it can affect customer's local or long distance service. Source: (AT&T). The practice was much more prevalent when long distance was first deregulated but still occurs with alarming frequency today.

We opened a new office in a remote location a year or two ago and set up local and long distance phone service with Qwest. Earlier this year we started noticing charges showing up from long distance carriers that we did not authorize. We went back and forth with the bogus companies who offered small refunds. When advised that we did not want or ask for their services they used intimidating language threatening that we would never be able to use their long distance service again. Duh! Hello! We never wanted their service in the first place. Why would we care?

We resolved this by calling Qwest and having them put a freeze on our account, something we should have done when we first set it up. Telephone service cannot legally be switched from an existing preferred telephone company to a new company unless the new company verifies the switch using one of the following methods: 1) Uses an independent third party to verify an oral authorization to switch. 2) Provides and obtains a signature on a letter that indicates, in writing, that you want to switch preferred telephone companies. 3) Provides a toll-free number that can be called to confirm the order to switch preferred telephone companies. Source (FCC).

So if we desire to file a complaint with the FCC (which we probably won't because it's such a small amount), the bogus carriers must prove that they did not slam us or be forced to pay us a fine equal to 50% of the amounts in the complaint. It is a common slamming practice to send a small ‘refund’ check of a few dollars. When cashed, it authorizes the sender to switch telephone companies. If we cashed such a check then it is our mistake that caused this problem.

Sometimes, sleazy phone companies will trick you into switching carriers by disguising the authorization in a telephone survey. If the person answering the telephone says “yes” to any of the surveyor’s questions, the answers may be taped and used later as verification of authorization to switch preferred telephone companies. Also, someone may have called and offered a free trial offer. The trial is free for 30 days and after that it starts billing every month on your bill.

In our case, the problem was exacerbated by centralized billing and distributed service. The people who pay the bills don't use the same phone service. So somebody at the remote location could have been subject to one of those surveys or a clerk in accounting could have deposited a bogus check without bothering to read the accompanying letter authorizing the switch. It just goes to show you that user education is needed but not always appreciated until the lack of it becomes apparent.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Yep, I'm the phone guy too - and I work Saturdays

In small companies, everyone assumes that the IT guy takes care of anything that uses electricity, even the phone system and everything associated with it. I don't mind. For the most part phone stuff is easy to handle. If it gets too complicated I call our phone vendor - the company that sold us the system. We don't have too many adds, moves and changes and the voice mail system is the same one I have used for the last twelve years through four companies.

I received an email this morning for one of our Saturday crew that staffs the charter scheduling desk. "Hey, Tim - I moved desks today so I decided to move my phone too." Uh, why would you do that - never mind. "So I plugged it in and it doesn't work. What did you do?" I kid you not. As if I did something to cause his phone to not work from 50 miles away. When I asked him what desk he moved to I remembered that the previous occupant of that desk had complained of a similar problem a few months back, right after a coffee spill.

He probably thought I was crazy when I told him to pull up the floor mat, unscrew the floor plate covering the phone and computer jacks and carefully pull all the wires out as far as he can without disconnecting anything. He emails back, "Hey, it's all wet under there. Could that be why the phone doesn't work?" Ya think? I'll bet somebody spilled another coke or cup of coffee on that floor mat and adjoining carpet area which seeped down into the floor jack for the phone.

So we air it out and things seem to work normal after awhile. I'll probably have to put in some new wiring when I get back into the office on Monday. This is the same guy who complains that I try to block his personal Mac from using our wireless network just because I don't like Macs. I don't dislike Macs - it's just that I'm a Microsoft guy and 95% of the rest of the world is too. He's also notorious for kidding me about the fact that we track all the web sites our users visit. I get nothing but abuse from some users. That's OK. It's all part of the job.

Friday, September 28, 2007

No, I'm not that Tim Malone - he's much younger

I noticed my blog finally showed up in Google today. I suppose it's vanity to look yourself up 0n Google, but you really should do it every so often. You may be suprised at what you find there, especially if you're an executive. I have been searching for years especially because I wanted to be sure that all traces of an old website I used to maintain had finally disappered. Yes, you can purge stuff about yourself from Google if you know how to do it.

Don't confuse me with that other Tim Malone computer guy. He's from Australia. He's also 19 years old and I'm a lot older. It looks like he's more successful than me since he already started and sold his first business. By his own admission he's an internet nut and a nerd. I too am an internet nut. My wife has affectionately called me a geek for most of our married life so I have a little in common with my namesake from Australia.

Intrestingly enough, if you Google Tim Malone today, the first web page that shows up is for "Tim Malone, M.Div, is an educator, retreat leader and spiritual director active in the Seattle community for the past 16 years." And then there's "A place called home - My family, our dog Brownie, and I live in South Central Minnesota. We call this home, and though we have lived in other areas, this remains home. Our extended families are here and this is what we know and expect."

So far I'm liking what I see when I Google my own name. These are guys like me who like the internet and like to express themselves creatively. Ah, but then there's the Tim Malone that shows up when you search for me in Google images. That is definately not me as I've never been in a gang or been photographed giving an Aryan salute. It's amazing what you can find when you Google your own name. That's why I had to use TMalone, MCSE on most everything -because my name has been taken.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A 32" monitor is not too big, is it?

The VP of Maintenance asked for a wall-mount monitor so the maintenance managers could see the status of all our aircraft in the air. We subscribe to a real-time tracking service, but it is too expensive to give everyone a subscription. Right now they have to get up and walk a few steps to the computer running Flight Explorer to see it.

After some negotiating, the CEO approved the purchase and I began shopping. I wanted a large screen model that could be seen from 30 feet away. So that meant a 30" screen or better. Plasma was out of the picture because I had a limited budget. I also wanted DVI, but had to settle for standard RGB at the price point I could afford - about $800.

I found a nice 32" model from LG Electronics (M3201C-BA) that fits the bill just perfectly. I bought another slightly smaller (27") LG model last year, for the maintenance library to view their aircraft schematics. It has served us well so I was predisposed to the LG brand. I found the one I wanted and began the negotiations with the suppliers.

I couldn't get them to go much less than $820 but got one of them to throw in some free freight and a reduced price on the wall mount hardware. Sold! Just have to set up an old retired computer with a wireless card to run the Flight Explorer software and we're in business. I bought the optional stand for $97 which we can use until we get it mounted on the wall.

Why we decided against shadow copies

One of the nice features of Server 2003 is the ability to make Shadow Copies of shared folders. Shadow Copy (aka VSS - Volume Snapshot Service) allows you to schedule snapshots of your data and then automatically save them. The users can then revert to a previous version of a file when they have a brain fart and overwrite or delete something accidentally.

While R2 of Server 2003 allows a new type of shadow copy called differential, which is actually much more efficient, we are still running Standard Edition SP2 on most of our servers. Thus we are stuck with the only option of scheduling a snapshot every so often - typically 7am and noon. You don't want to do it more often as it definitely affects I/O and therefore user annoyance.

While having a recent backup of a file elsewhere on the file server would come in handy, here's why we decided that implementing VSS would not be advantageous to our organization. VSS works best with a separate volume, preferably on a different physical disk. This improves performance and decreases the chances of data being overwritten on high I/O servers.

While we have about 150GB available on a 256GB array, it has all been configured in two volumes: the OS and data. We would have to completely wipe out and reconfigure our array in order to follow Microsoft best practices. I suppose I could turn on VSS with the existing volume configuration but with up to 64 available Shadow Copies disk space is quickly consumed.

Besides, how often do I really need to do a restore? I use Backup Exec and have a NAS with three days of backups always online. I can do a restore from any one of those or pull a tape from anytime over the past twenty days. My file sever is also overloaded with services right now so any more I/O while the shadow copies are created would be a real drag.

Conclusion: We decided that implementing Shadow Copies on our main file server is not a good idea for us a this time. If I were setting up a new file server and had the disk space to spare, I would set the array up properly and turn it on. Perhaps when we migrate to Server 2008 sometime next year we will take advantage of this cool feature.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dear NameNotFound

I received this email today from a tech agency. Do you think maybe there could be something wrong with their mail merge skills?

"Dear Namenotfound: This is Deepak from Thinking-Minds, Inc. We are a consulting firm based at Kingstown, RI. Specializing in enterprise IT consulting and project staff augmentation for major Fortune 500 organizations and Big 3 consulting firms.

While scouting for a suitable resource, I came across your resume on web, which matched some of the requisite skills of the requirement. The details of the positions are as follows. Position : UNIX System Administrator located in Chicago, IL."

I'm registered on Dice, ComputerJobs, ComputerWork, Career Builder and several other sites that list tech jobs. I try to make it very clear in my listings that I am looking for local contracts in the evenings and weekends to build Microsoft networks with Small Business Server.

I also have my own website with my online resume that spells it out fairly clearly. I have a full-time job that I love, mainly because I get to work from home most of the time. Obviously these headhunters don't do much research or they would know that I'm in California, not Illinois.

Maybe Deepak needs to get a better Thinking Mind.

I'm beginning to see a pattern here

It seems like every entry I've made so far has something to do with Outlook and Exchange. Email issues are taking up more of my time each day than anything else. It's not that there is anything wrong with the email server - it's more the user expectations that are the issue.

I received an email from a remote user who said he couldn't receive any email on his laptop. Knowing that he carries a mobile email device I emailed him back and asked him to describe the symptoms. He wrote back, "it's just sitting there with this blue bar saying it's downloading."

"Hmmm...could it be that someone sent you an email with a large attachment? Maybe you should just wait it out," I suggested. "Nah, that couldn't be it," he said. "It has never taken this long before to download my email." Of course he knows nothing about the connection speeds at his hotel.

I receive the same email from him every five minutes, "Isn't there something you can do to speed it up?" I'm glad I've trained my users to use email for everything but the most urgent tech support requests. Otherwise he would have heard the exasperation in my voice.

Finally, he says he is going to go to supper and will be away from the keyboard for awhile. I tell him to be sure to leave the computer running and Outlook open. Maybe he will be surprised and his email download will finish by the time he gets back. I don't hear from him again.

Curiosity causes me to shoot him an email the next day (this morning). "Did you ever get all your email last night?" His response, "Yeah, I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Did you do something on your end to speed it up?" Sigh. It just doesn't do any good to try to explain.