Friday, December 12, 2008

Connecting remote network locations

One of the requirements of an IT Manager working for an organization with remote locations is knowing how to connect the networks from each site. It’s really not a big deal. You just put a VPN between them. It’s very simple as long as you have sufficient bandwidth and know how to secure the connections with a good firewall. Everyone knows how to program firewalls, right?

My first experiencing in connecting two sites was back in the old Novell days. You remember Novell, don’t you? They made one of the first server operating systems designed for PC-based networks called Netware. There are still a lot of long-running Novell servers in small businesses out there even though Novell lost the majority of the market share to Microsoft back in the 90’s.

We used Arcnet back in the day – a coax-based network running at 2.5Mbs with active hubs every 2,000 feet. That’s why we used Arcnet instead of early Ethernet – which was limited to 600 feet end to end. We had multiple warehouses in a small business complex that needed every bit of the distance Arcnet provided. It’s hard to believe that we built that over twenty years ago.

Connecting international sites

Almost every company I’ve worked for since then has had multiple locations, both in their local campus and with locations in distant cities, some international. For the companies that had sites within a metropolitan area we used Frame Relay, an inexpensive way of sharing the public phone network to provide PVC’s – permanent virtual circuits – to each of our offices in the city.

For the international sites, we used 56K dial-up. Yep, you could network two Novell LANs via dial-up for the purpose of exchanging files and email on a demand basis. This was before the days when there was an ISP in every city to provide the connection. The demand became so constant that the long-distance calls from our Mexico plants were sometimes twelve hours a day.

Once Internet Service Providers finally came to the Mexico cities where we had our plants, we dumped the expensive long-distance calls and began setting up point-to-point VPN’s. They were still over the 56K dial-up modems, so they always seemed to be dropping the connection. I am sure it had something to do with the quality of the wiring infrastructure in Nogales and Mexicali.

From dial-up to DSL

When DSL finally came to Mexico, we at last had a halfway reliable method of connecting our two networks. You may wonder why we didn’t do leased 56K lines or T1’s. Remember, this is small business we’re talking about. International leased lines back in the 90’s were thousands of dollars a month. This was also right about the time we were dumping Novell for Microsoft NT.

Connecting remote sites these days is a piece of cake. As long as each location has a high speed connection to the internet, you can share files on servers and send email back and forth all day and night without it costing an arm and a leg. The only real concern is security in connecting your private business locations to the public internet. That’s why you need a good firewall.

We used to use Cisco PIX firewalls but we have switched to Juniper Netscreen’s mainly because they are easier to program and support more features for less money. Cisco to me is like the way IBM was just before they finally got out of the PC Business. They have a huge support structure in place and have to charge more for the same features giving smaller competitors an advantage.

Bandwidth and sharing data

Bandwidth is a critical part of a good VPN connection. It’s not so much the downlink speed as it is the uplink speed. Many people don’t realize that and try to go with a cheap DSL at 768Kbps down and 128Kbps up. Don’t do that. Get the 3Mbs down with at least 512Kbs up. Get more if they offer it. We pay $65 a month for our 3Mbs DSL line as a backup to our symmetrical T1.

Working at the airport is kind of like being on a campus. Although we have fiber between most of our hangars, some are just too far away or across a runway. We couldn’t very well dig up the runway to lay fiber so we opted to use the public network. Connecting a hanger 4,200 feet away is no different than connecting a remote office across the county or on the far side of the world.

As long as both locations have a good Internet connection you can make it look like a server at the other location is in a closet down the hall. This is especially true if you implement DFS – Distributed File System - which caches and replicates local copies of shared files on a Microsoft network. The replication is fault tolerant, fast and reliable even over slow WAN connections.

The VPN makes it happen

DFS is not intended to be used in a collaborative environment where multiple users might have the same file open, making changes at the same time. Just like you would not have two people working on the same spreadsheet on a local network, don’t expect DFS to provide file or record locking capabilities. For that, you need a true shared database application like MS SQL server.

For our new hangar we simply created the VPN between our two firewalls, joined the servers at the remote location to the domain and began the replication process. Our remote employees are able to log in to a local server and have access to shared files at local speeds. We also employ Cached Exchange Mode on their Outlook client to create the local copy of their company email.

The VPN – Virtual Private Network – allows the administrator to perform maintenance on the remote servers and workstations as if they were onsite, because they are inside our network. We use Remote Desktop extensively to provide that support. The sensitive data that flows between our corporate office and our remote locations is secure because of the firewall encryption.

Microsoft technology employed

Where remote employees need to run client-server applications that don’t perform well over WAN distances, we use Microsoft Terminal Services. Our Flight Operations software and our accounting software both use this technology. Employees run their client on a server at the corporate office that is on the local LAN. It uses the same technology as Remote Desktop.

Our new hangar is 110% energy efficient meaning that the electricity it produces from the solar panels is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the electrical systems we have there. We are able to return 10% of the electricity to the city grid. The cameras on the security system are also available to our local authorized network users and are shared for executive home viewing.

Ordinarily I would not mention details like this from our new hangar but the company has gone public with it so if you would like to know more, you can read about it and view it online. We are very proud of the fact that it is the first platinum LEED certified aircraft hangar in the world. My part in the construction was minimal. I just made sure we are well connected and secure.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tech support at the small company

When I first start with a new company I can usually count on my day always being busy. No, hectic is a better word for it. I have always worked for small companies that either did not previously have a tech support guy or that fired the previous support person due to incompetence or an unwillingness to do things the company way. That’s not a good way to treat an employer.

When the employees find out that there is someone on the payroll that knows what they are doing with computers, it’s as if the floodgates open. All the pent-up frustrations of not knowing how to do something with the computer or the network come to the surface and I am deluged with unending calls and requests for meetings to discuss their issues and solve their problems.

The small company mentality

Small companies are interesting to work for. They are quite a different animal from the large corporate environment where there are department and inter-departmental politics. Sure, some of that exists in the small company but for the most part, when you are supporting less than 100 computers, you can count on wearing multiple hats and having to be the expert in all of them.

For example, in addition to the approximately 100 computers including all kinds of laptops, I support a dozen servers in several locations, the LAN at each location, the WAN, the routers, firewalls, switches, fiber connections between hangars at the airport where I work, the email system, the SQL server database, the website, the intranet and all the phone and FAX systems.

Need more than tech skills

When you are the sole tech support guy, there are a multitude of soft skills that are needed to survive in the small business environment. Number one on the list is the ability to relate well to people. Most people don’t care about technology. Computers do not fascinate them. To them, the stuff we work on is nothing more than a tool. They could care less about how it really works.

Your success in helping a frustrated co-worker deal with some problem on their computer is in direct relation to how well you can deflect abuse or blame. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard or have had implied, “It’s your fault that it’s not working.” It’s a real talent to be able to accept that responsibility without taking offense. “No problem – we’ll get it working soon.”

Dealing with executives

The favorite part of my job is dealing with the upper level CEOs and Vice Presidents. For the most part, they are completely helpless when it comes to technology and they hate that feeling of being powerless. If you want to experience some real stress, try taking the call from the CEO when he can’t get the video projector working in front of several multi-million dollar clients.

Executives travel and don’t do well with remote connections. Although it has become easier in the last few years with wireless in the hotel rooms, leave it to the travelling VP to always find some way of messing something up with his Outlook client. A simple change in the view from 100% to 200% can cause a major freak-out with claims that they didn’t do anything. Fix that!

Benefits of small company work

In spite of all the stressful aspects of doing tech support at a small company, there are some major advantages that you won’t find in the big companies. Even though I am a Microsoft certified systems engineer, I enjoy the company understanding and support of a regular budget for outside consulting with other engineers when working on major infrastructure changes.

And, almost always, after a year or two, I am able to convince the boss to allow me to train a junior assistant to take over the day-to-day helpdesk issues. It usually ends up being the son of one of the owners or executives, but that works out just fine. I can then focus on network and server support, concentrating on long-range planning for anticipated growth or disaster recovery.

Summary and conclusion

After nearly thirty years of working for small companies providing tech support, I can endorse the career choice completely. Sure, there is a limit to how much you can earn, but there is also a much lower level of expectation and almost always a higher level of appreciation from those who run the company. The small business is usually run with a very family-friendly atmosphere.

Maybe my experiences with tech support in the small business world have been unique or maybe I have just been blessed, but I no longer miss the idea of working for the huge IT department in corporate America, especially with all the economic concern that we live with today. No job is completely secure, but being the only computer guy for a small company is a pretty good gig.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Real world example of scope creep

Scope creep is defined as the tendency of a project to grow in scale and complexity as more individuals get involved. It also occurs as the details of the project are presented to the project owners who requested it, usually management, who then say, "Can you also make it do this or that?" Let me give you an example that happened to me just the other day.

I am the IT Manager for a private jet charter management company. Several years ago we added Boeing Business Jets to our fleet. These are larger than the Gulfstream aircraft which comprise the majority of our aircraft. A BBJ is a 737 that is tweaked out with tens of millions of dollars worth of custom mods that make it into a flying luxury yacht for the very wealthy.

Of course a bigger aircraft requires a bigger hangar. So we built one. No, it's not a simple project. It requires a lot of environmental approvals and just the right touch with the airport authorities. An older and smaller hangar was purchased and demolished and the new one has been rising in its place over the past year. It will house the BBJ and two smaller G550 aircraft.

Getting the details defined

From day one I offered management my assistance in defining the network and communications requirements. "No thanks", I was told. "The building contractor has that all taken care of." I sensed trouble and kept following up with occasional emails over the past year asking specific questions like how they would like our sites connected and what the phone system would be.

I confess I played CYA with these emails, documenting each offer of assistance with specifics of what would be needed to make it all work - switches, routers, VPNs, PRIs, VoIP phones, wireless access points and a domain controller for local authentication and file replication. I suspect that the verbiage about wiring closets and cross connects just went over their heads.

This week I received a call from one of the subcontractors wanting to know how many network drops were needed and where exactly they would be going. Did I freak? You bet I did, but I managed it in a very professional way. It was obvious that the contractor had failed in planning properly for all the electronics involved in the new building. Has this ever happened to you?

Managing an out of control project

I told the wiring contractor I would get back to him. I fired off an email to the site project manager, an employee of our company, notifying him of the situation. He assured me that they had provided all the necessary details to the general contractor and it was all included in the plans. Somehow copies of plans don't always make it down to subcontractors, do they?

Next the phone contractor calls and asks, "Where is the MPOE?" There is no physical wiring from the phone company in the building yet. "Let me get right back to you on that," I respond. Is it panic time yet? The building is supposed to be occupied in sixty days and they haven't yet arranged for voice and data to the outside world. Oh, and no phone system has been chosen.

That's it. I call for a general meeting with the contractor, the project managers from all sides and the subcontractors. It turns out the project manager from our company simply had no clue about networks and phones. He thought the contractor had it all handled. I shake my head in amazement. How can you build an expensive hangar and not plan for the damn network?

Here's where the scope creep occurs

During the general meeting to resolve the network and phone issues, the various kinds of phone systems are discussed. I notice out of the corner of my eye that the VP who's baby this is begins to look uncomfortable when we get close to finalizing on a stand-alone VoIP PBX. "What's the matter?" I asked. "Can I pick up the phone and call an extension back at the main office?"

Our existing phone system in the main hangar is twelve years old. It does not even support a PRI (T1). It also does not support remote locations. A single building wiring project just turned into a multi-building job. New phone system for both buildings and new wiring in the old to support VoIP. I was looking for a good reason to upgrade. Its funny how things work out.

Now I have to sell it to the CEO. "What! You want to spend $60,000 on a phone system for this building? We only have a few employees in the new hangar. Why do we have to replace the phone system here?" Ah, the joys of being an IT Manager. If only someone had listened to me from the beginning, this could have all been planned for and budgeted. Now it's a shock to all.

Summary and conclusion

You can draw all kinds of conclusions about how poorly this project was managed. I'll point out one right away - poor communications. But, I've got to tell you after thirty years in this business that this is not all unusual. I've just never seen it happen on this large a scale before. CEOs and VPs are busy with their day to day tasks. Delegating everything without follow-up doesn't work.

In addition to poor communications, the details were undefined in advance. Nobody knew what kind of phone system was wanted or needed. Nobody knew or asked how we would connect our two networks. Wireless access was not even considered. The subcontractors are now overjoyed because they get to sell us a whole lot more equipment than they thought when they were hired.

It all works out in the end. It's only money, right? Unfortunately, it's all too typical of how some large successful companies run projects - everyone likes to delegate but some decisions will always need to be made near the top. That's called leadership but it's hard work because it means dealing with uncomfortable details. After all, that's what IT Managers are paid to do, right?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tech Republic posts for May 08

Blogging at Tech Republic was a little light this past month. I have gotten myself deeply involved in a disaster recovery planning project that is taking a lot of my time and energy. The project will in all likelihood exceed $100,000. The hardware is looking to be about $60K or $70K. I'm looking at several outside companies to provide the DR planning expertise.

We are looking at implementing Virtual Server technology at either the remote site or back in the main office and then grandfathering the old servers to the remote location. We are experiencing scope creep and considering upgrading our Exchange Server to 2007 in the process. This is quickly becoming a very complex project but I'm enjoying managing it.


Date Posted




Fire suppression for the server room



Setting up a remote hot site



I only read the stories for the comments



New user guide to TechRepublic

I'll confess here that perhaps the real reason blogging on tech Republic has been light is because of the "attack and castigate" mentality of some people who read and comment on blogs. I wrote about it on post number three on the list above. It seems to be so prevalent on many forums and blogs today. It's as if a reader feels that they must challenge whatever the writer presented.

It takes all the fun out of blogging. It has made me seriously think about bringing my blogs back from Tech Republic to my own blog. Here I can write in a bit more relaxed manner, simply sharing some of the things I learn and discover about disaster recovery or any other project I am working on. If it's not interesting, you don't have to read it, but it helps me to write about it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Memories of an old tech guy

I have been posting all my tech articles on Tech Republic these days. But I put so much work into this one that I wanted to enhance it with photos here on my own blog. This post was entitled, "Old tech guys are slowly fading away" on my Tech of all Trades blog.

I love visiting computer history sites and watching computer history shows. Why? When I visit these sites I gain a perspective on a part of my life that I did not have at the time I was passing through it. For example, when I first started programming in Applesoft on an Apple II computer, I thought it would be a great business language. Ha!

I know I am going to be dating myself when I bring this up, but humor an old tech guy for a few minutes . I remember when we used to sell software on cassette tapes. We put it in baggies and hung it on a peg board on the wall, right next to the the Commodore PET and the Apple II.

People would bring in the TRS-80 computers (we called them trash-80) and ask us to repair them because the local Radio Shack didn't service their own stuff
. What year would you say this was? If you guessed 1978 you would be right. I'll bet that's before some of you were born.

When I got out of college I went to work as a programmer for some "old school" programming shops. I wrote in RPG II on an IBM System 3 and in COBOL on a Sperry Univac 90/30. That machine was a dinosaur even then. The hot new technology was writing in BASIC and Datashare on a DataPoint ARC network.

I used to love to visit COMDEX in those early years of the microcomputer. I was amazed to see all the technology that was coming out. With thousands of other geeks we ogled over the new Micromodem II for the Apple, which sold for about $300. Since I worked for an early computer store I got it for a lot less. My whole world changed.

I can't tell you how many hours I wasted "surfing the net" back in the late 70's and early 80's. No, the Web did not yet exist and most people had not heard of the Internet. We dialed up places like CompuServe and "The Source" or would just connect to TymNet or TelEnet to see whose network we could log on to. Was that hacking? Maybe.

Rather than bore you with my old tech guy memories, perhaps a short list of some of my favorite computer history sites might be helpful if you are interested in learning more about the history of the personal computer. But be careful, if you have any work to get done today, this trip down memory lane will seriously sidetrack you.

1. The Computer History Museum- The online home of the museum on Shoreline drive in Mountain View. Go to the Exhibits section. You can spend hours viewing the collection of marketing brochures. I especially love their time lines. They even have a great YouTube channel. Careful - I warned you this could be detracting from real work.

2. Apple Computers -Because a big part of my early career involved Apple II computers, I like to include Steven Weyhrich's site on Apple II History. You can find other sites like, but it hasn't changed much lately. The Apple Museum is a better site and the Wikipedia article is great. Where is the "official" Apple history site?

3. - One of my favorites. There are nearly a thousand computers in their museum. Use the index on the left-hand sidebar. The articles in the history section are great, the forums are active and something unique that I haven't seen anywhere else - a major list of collectors from all over. Great if you have an old computer to buy or sell.

4. Computer Science Lab- John Kopplin put together a four part pictorial of computer history through the early 80's. Some of the photos are rare which I have not seen elsewhere. The accompanying descriptions could be taken from a college lecture on the history of computers. The lecture ends as the PC was getting started but is well worth a visit.

5. Computer Chronicles - Who can forget this great TV series from Stewart Cheifet? It aired from 1981 to 2002. Well, you may have never heard of it. You can watch many of the episodes online at the Internet archive. I highly recommend the episode Apple II forever, one of my favorites. More on the history of the show is on stquantum.

6. Old Computer Museum - Although you can find this site from the Old Computers club (#3 above), it is worth mentioning as one of the best organized and presented. This collection of Boris Serebrennikov is outstanding. If you have an old Lisa or even an Amiga (still a popular retro machine) he is interested in hearing from you.

7. The Computer Collector - This is a fairly complete list, useful to those who have old machines to buy, sell or trade. It is also an enormously wealthy site for computer history buffs. Many of those who buy and sell computers have great historical information about the computers they worked on. Lots of great personal history stories can be found here.

8. IBM PC Official History - It still amazes me how many people believe that the IBM PC was the first microcomputer. We used to laugh at those who thought our industry was "legitimized" when IBM finally made their entry in 1981, easily five years after Altair, IMSAI, Cromemco, Apple, Commodore, Radio Shack, Atari, Altos and Vector Graphic.

9. Personal Computer in TV commercials - The download squad has put together a collection of TV commercials for personal computers, some of them going back to the early 1980's. What a hoot! The early William Shatner piece has been removed but the original 1984 superbowl ad introducing the Macintosh is there as well as many others. Enjoy!

10. Old This list could go on and on - and it does if you Google it - but this one needs to be included in my top ten list of sites to visit. An extremely popular site, it is billed as the "Obsolete Technology Website" it includes great links not found on any of the above sites including the Intel museum. Thank you Steven Stengel.

I know I've missed your favorites. Add them in the comments. Also, be sure to check out the resources for "Dinosaur Sightings" on Tech Republic.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Trouble with Cached Exchange Mode in Outlook

Yes, I know we're a little behind. We have not yet migrated to Office 2007 or Exchange Server 2007. Even though we are a small business with only about 100 seats that's still a big financial commitment. Maybe we'll take the plunge next year. But for today, we are still running a very reliable Exchange Server 2003 Enterprise Edition with SP2. Other than needing to occasionally add storage space, it has been working just fine in our organization for the last three years. Management likes that and so do I.

One thing that management doesn't like is Cached Exchange Mode in Outlook 2003. I don't know why it's so much trouble for them. It works fine for me - always has. We may have a scenario that taxes the capabilities of Cached Exchange Mode to the max. In case you don't know, Cached Exchange Mode is simply Microsoft speak for Offline Folders - a local cache of what's in your mailbox on the Exchange Server. We only use it for employees in remote offices or home offices of execs.

Here is the scenario: Executive A is a high-volume, high-density email user in a far city. He easily sends and receives several hundred emails each day, most of them with large attachments of photos or PDFs with embedded photos. We're talking 5 to 10MB of attachments on many of his daily emails. I have never figured out why it has become so acceptable to send such large attachments. It just kind of evolved over the past few years.

Our industry happens to be aircraft sales but the same scenario could exist in Real Estate, automobiles, yachts or any business that needs to send lots of photos back and forth. The executive in question also uses multiple computers - one in the office and one in the home office, both on the East Coast of the U.S. Both his computers are configured to get his email from our Exchange Server on the West Coast of the U.S. using Outlook 2003 and Cached Exchange Mode.

The executive will work all day on the office computer, log off and then work all evening on the home office computer. The complaint is that it will sometimes take hours for synchronization of the offline folders to take place when first firing up one or the other to check his email. He reports that some emails are delayed by many hours while the cache is playing catch up. His mailbox size is over 7GB with over 32,000 individual email messages in multiple folders.

The far city does not have an Exchange Server. We only have the one on the West Coast. All email flows here and then out to the remote office. The remote office is connected via a VPN - a full T1 line here and a 3.1Mbs / 768Kbs DSL line there. The connection speed on the remote home office is a modest 1.5Mbs / 384Kbs DSL with no VPN. Most of the trouble seems to be when connected at the remote home office. Outlook is configured to get email via RPC over HTTP.

I know this reads like an MCSE exam question. Besides cutting his mailbox size down to a more manageable size, what would you recommend?

Update: I posted this same entry on my Tech Republic blog and received many good suggestions and recommendations there. That's why I post most of my stuff on Tech Republic these days. It has a much larger readership of tech guys like me.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

How to protect your digital assets

I posted this on the website of Joel Dehlin, the CIO of the LDS Church in response to a question he asked about how we can protect our digital assets. His post was entitled, "You have the Right to Remain Visible."

Hi Joel,

Good post. In it you wrote, "I’m about as technical as the sole of an old shoe." Oh come on, Joel. You're saying that as the CIO of the church you don't have at least some technical ability in this area? I find that hard to believe. Unless working at Microsoft all those years numbed your technical savvy, that must have been written tongue in cheek.

Seriously, you raise a good point. So many are naive when it comes to protecting their personal home computers from the internet. I have had similar experiences in seeing many open computers when firing up my laptop at home or when travelling. It's just that people don't know about encryption.

What's worse is people who have only one computer in their home which is directly connected to the DSL or cable *without* the firewall turned on. They have no clue that their anti-virus expired months ago and that they have become compromised. They wonder why their computer is so slow. It's because it has become a 'zombie' and is sending out tons of spam under another's control.

I know because I see this all the time. As a computer professional I get calls from people in my ward struggling with this problem in particular. I do not charge for helping them out. I think of the Lord's admonition, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it onto me." It's kind of like an extension of home teaching service.

To answer your question about precautions, here is a short list:

1. Use a firewall. Either make sure the Microsoft firewall is enabled on your XP or Vista machine or use an external firewall. Most people who have a LinkSys wireless router have a firewall and don't know it. Just make sure it is turned on. It is usually on by default so if you haven't changed it, don't worry about it.

2. Clear your cache on a regular basis. It is a simple mater to push the button in Internet Explorer or Firefox but again, most people don't know how. It's just a matter of education. I find that the kids in the family know all about it because they don't want mom and dad to know what sites they have been visiting.

3. Keep your Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware solutions up to date. I know it is a mystery to so many home users but it shouldn't be. They get that new computer for Christmas but don't realize that that the Anti-virus software is a subscription based product that is only good for three months. I can always count on getting calls in April from people who learn this the hard way.

4. Make sure that you only use your credit card number online with secure sites. Today, almost all sites that take credit cards use some method of secure encryption. Never transact online business with companies that do not use encryption. If you see the little padlock in the corner of your browser when you are buying something online, then it is probably secure.

5. If you store lists of credit card numbers or other personal information on your computer in a spreadsheet, consider encrypting that particular spreadsheet. It's not hard to do but most people don't know how to do it. If you use a popular personal financial program like Quicken or MS Money, you can be sure that your financial information stored in the program is encrypted.

6. If you suspect that your Internet Service Provider is tracking the websites you visit, consider changing to another one that does not. In most American communities there are at least three choices for getting on the internet - cable, DSL and now fiber. There are usually a number of small local ISPs that compete with the cable company or phone company. Check it out.

There are more things you can do to protect your digital assets but these are the most common that any home computer user can do. I wish I knew more about how internet access and security (or the lack thereof) works in other countries but that's been my experience here in the United States.

Tim Malone, MCSE - Camarillo, CA -

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The computer doctor is in

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon among my co-workers. As the IT Manager, it is my job to maintain the servers, the computers and the network. I am responsible for security and for the continual availability of the data on our servers to all those who need it. I think I do a pretty good job of that. In fact, it's hard not to. Once technology is put into place and is tuned properly, it just runs and it just works. The secret is in choosing good and reliable technology.

So here's the phenomenon: I practice what is called MBWA - Management by Wandering Around. I learned it from a wise CFO I once worked for. It never ceases to amaze me the number of times I will meander by someone's desk and have them call out to me to get my attention. "Hey Tim," they almost shout, "What's up with Vista? We're having all kinds of trouble with it. Can you help us go back to XP?"

Now, get this. I have not yet implemented Vista in our offices. In fact, there is only one Vista computer in the entire enterprise. So I ask the employee on which computer he is having problems. "Oh, it's my daughter's new laptop that she got for Christmas." I've heard this complaint a lot lately. It seems that Microsoft has done a great job of selling Vista primarily in only one place - in the retail and mail order stores aimed squarely at the consumer.

"Sure, I would be happy to help you," I say. Under my breath I mutter, "Why didn't you ask my advice before you bought it?" It has been over a year since Microsoft rolled out Vista. I have written about it several times in previous posts but am still of the opinion that there is really no need for Vista. It doesn't offer much advantage over XP and in fact, requires an investment in beefier hardware that simply doesn't justify the cost. In other words, it's just not worth it.

This post isn't about Vista. That just happens to be the example I used. The point of this entry is the phenomenon where people seem to feel this innate tendency and need to complain about something when they see the IT Manager even though things are otherwise going extremely well. There's nothing wrong with this employee's work computer. Email is flowing, servers are serving, clients are talking, the Internet is there for anyone to use and abuse all day.

So why do they feel that they just have to share some technological deficiency in their life when I happen to come into the room? Are they just trying to make polite conversation? I can do without the complaints about Vista, but if it's not Vista then it will be about their home wireless network or about their printer at home that is no longer printing. In other words, I get dumped on a lot with stuff that has nothing to do with our computer equipment at work.

I guess I don't mind working on an employee's personal computer problems, as long as the boss knows about it and especially if it is the boss that has asked me to take care of it. But for the most part, it gets a little annoying to be asked every day about computer issues that have nothing to do with work. It's like I'm expected to provide free computer consulting to every co-worker as if it's part of my job description. I guess that's to be expected if you're the expert.

Sometimes the co-worker will listen to my advice and sometimes they won't. I almost always recommend a course of action that they need to take to remedy or further diagnose their problem. Once they ascertain that I'm putting the burden back on them, they quickly turn the conversation to something else. I guess they feel better that they have talked it over with their IT Manager. I sometimes feel like a psychiatrist to all the employees.

What do you think? Is it OK for co-workers to use the IT Manager as a resource for their personal computer problems?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Windows Vista Power Management

I've had a couple of new Vista users complain about the power management features of Windows Vista. It's not really a big deal to change. Like most complaints I get about Vista, it's just in a new and different location. Here is a graphic that summarizes it very succinctly. Click on the image for a larger view

Friday, January 11, 2008

VPNs and Remote Desktop from home to office

More and more employees are working from home these days. That means they use Remote Desktop and need a VPN. Oh there are other ways, but I'm not going to allow employees to use or on my network. Sorry, I'm responsible for security so I'll control that access myself, thank you very much.

I don't even like to use PCAnyWhere. I mean, why should you pay for something that is built-in to Windows - Remote Desktop? The thing that makes it all works is the VPN. A virtual private network is just a secure method of getting through the company firewall. It's not a big deal to setup a VPN and Remote Desktop. I've done it dozens of times.

That's why I was really frustrated when our HR manager could not get it set up following the standard instructions that have worked for every other employee that has needed it. Now I don't give remote access to just anybody. They have to have a job that requires it or just can't get enough of work so they take it home with them.

I must have spent four or five hours working on this issue over several months. We tried everything. Sometimes the VPN would connect but the majority of the time it wouldn't. We could never get Remote Desktop to work when the VPN said it was working. So I did something I rarely do - I offered to make an on-site visit to her home to get it working.

Of course the HR Manager was over-joyed. She had shared her frustration with her husband who happens to have his own business and his own computer guy. She suggested that the other computer guy meet us there. All we needed to have a full complement of tech guys was to invite a tech from AT&T to join us. It turns out we didn't need him.

The router was setup to get it's IP address using DHCP. That's not a problem - either DHCP or static works fine and has worked for lots of other employees. The only problem was the gateway it was getting - I would have expected an outside address from the ISP. So we got into the SpeedStream modem at that address. Ah ha! It was running PPPoE.

I've noticed this on a few modems setup by SBC (now AT&T) here in Southern California. My first thought was to change the IP address of the modem to The DHCP on the router was handing out addresses in that range so it only made sense to make the modem the first address in that subnet. We decided to try something else instead.

The modem can run PPPoE, pass-through PPPoE or can be put into a complete bridge mode. We used the second option because the WRT54G router can also be programmed for PPPoE. It worked! The funny thing is that the modem reports that it has no connectivity. I suppose that's because it's PPPoE circuitry has been bypassed. Whatever - it works.

Conclusion: Sometimes it just takes an on-site visit to make things work. I confess I've been spoiled over the past few years because I've been able to support all our remote locations via Remote Desktop without having to physically go there. I like that. Remote Desktop is the greatest single thing on Windows for an IT Manager with multiple locations to support.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Our first Vista implementation

We've finally bitten the bullet and are in the process of delivering a new computer with Vista Business instead of Windows XP installed. Yes, I know we're a little late in the game but not so late when you read what other companies are doing - most are still delaying.

Working with Vista is not at all difficult. The hardest part is figuring out where everything is. I like the interface. I don't like the endless 'are you sure you really want to do that' sort of questions. My opinion of the product has not changed - why do we really need it?

So why did we choose to go ahead with a new Vista workstation when everyone else in the company is still on XP? It was because the computer with the horsepower I wanted and needed for this individual was not available with XP. I think somebody is being sneaky about that.

Of course it is inevitable that we will make the switch. The boss doesn't like it. Sometimes I think he has no clue what an operating system is but then he doesn't need to know in order to run a multi-million dollar organization, does he? That's why he hired me.

So why didn't I just install XP over Vista? I tried. It threw up so many times that it became a waste of my time. I think it had something to do with the lack of drivers for some of the new features of the hardware we got. The old XP CD didn't seem to like PCI-E and SATA drives.

I suppose I could have figured it out eventually, but I would have spent hours and hours just nuking the drive, finding all the right drivers and reinstalling all the applications. I chose to make the investment of those hours in answering questions from the end-user on why Vista is different.

No, I still don't plan to do a wholesale migration of all the computers in the company to Vista. To do that we would have to replace three fourths of them with newer models. That will wait until next year when most of them are scheduled to be replaced. Yes, by next year I mean 2009.

So what do you think? Are we behind the ball on rolling out Vista or ahead of the curve?