The Solid State PC

A silent PC is one that makes absolutely no noise, and by necessity has no moving parts (including fans). Such systems usually use very low-end hardware limited to trivial tasks such as running a cash register. The system introduced today, a Solid-State PC (SSPC) is a powerful quad-core i5 PC which runs most software faster than the majority of modern PCs, yet uses less than 25W idle.

Continue reading The Solid State PC

So a SQL Server Transaction Log ate Your Free Space.

This weekend I came across an unusual circumstance that I thought I would share with many of those part-time SQL Server admins. I currently maintain more than a couple of SQL servers. Because SQL Server has a good maintenance program I don’t spend the money on a third party software for backup. Instead I setup the maintenance plan to create a backup every 6 hours and then push the file to a network share. For some reason or another, the network share came detached and the backups filled up the local data volume. This effectively shutdown the server. I cleared up the space, restored the mapping, and didn’t think much more about the problem. I noticed that I was getting a backup file from each database but failed to pay attention to the transaction log.
This is where my new problem that consumed my weekend started. Friday night at 7pm I got another phone call about the SQL server being out of disk space again. Again I had no space on the volume, but the space wasn’t consumed by the backups. Instead, the transaction log which is normally a couple of gigs in size had ballooned to 100GB in size. I had attached an external USB drive to push a backup of the transaction log to and tried to shrink the transaction log from the SQL Server Manager. This only give me about 3 GB of storage back, but they were quickly consumed as soon as the end users started using in their application again. I then kicked off a backup of the database and then transaction log. I now had 99% of the space free in the transaction log file, but still could not shrink the database. I had fought and fought with the database trying to get that free space back.

Finally at about 2am, running out of ideas, I deleted the transaction log file and started up the database again which effectively locked the database for a lot of people. Having migrated the database before, and knowing that a simple restore of the database could easily fix the problem, I took the most recent backup which was actually taken after end users were cut off from the server and restored the database. After the restore, I again had the same problem of a database with a 100 GB transaction log file. This time however, I for some reason threw caution to the wind and performed yet another shrink to the transaction log file. Finally, I freed up 75% of the space on the volume which allowed everything to return to normal.
Why I had to backup and restore the database before I could perform an effective shrink of the database, I do not know. If this has happened to other people, I would like to know the reason behind this.
My corrective actions include scripting a compression command on the backups to reduce their size.  I also plan on creating a trigger to notify me by email when the disk space is low, 20% is one of my favorite guide lines as far as that is concerned. I am considering running a network mapping script to reattach the volume of the server before the files are moved over so that the network volume that I monitor won’t be so easily missed with the other backup files that I file on the backup storage volume.  I don’t like using compression because of how having to decompress a file to restore it effectively adds to the lengthy process of getting the database back to working order.  Then again, having a few extra copies of the database around is also handy.

I am open to other input. I thought I would just share my wonderful late night experience with others in hope to get some improvements or perhaps help out other admins who might run into the same problem.

GMail is not a business tool. Period.

EDIT: It’s become obvious to me from the comments that people are failing to see that this article is specifcally about “GMail” (the free email product) and not “Google Apps for Business”. GAfB is an entirely different ball of wax. While it’s not perfect, it’s a lot better than GMail for business purposes and I have no major complaint about it.

Something I’ve been seeing more and more is the use of GMail for business. The problem is, GMail is absolutely unacceptable for business usage, but the folks who use it don’t see it that way. To be honest, I’ve never used GMail personally. But GMail’s handling of business scenarios is so poor, I don’t have to use it to know that it is not the right tool for the job. I just need to send and receive email from GMail users.

I understand why people like GMail. The UI seems to be good. It can act as a single collection point for a dozen other accounts and let you work with them. It hooks up easily to a variety of smartphones. Android phones in particular work much better with GMail than they do with Exchange, that’s for sure. And for the consumer level user, these are all excellent reasons to make GMail your primary email client and account.

But business users have different needs and different use cases, and in those situations, GMail not only falls flat, it can be outright harmful to both your ability to work and your appearance as a professional.

Problem #1: Over-aggressive spam filtering

This seems to have gotten better, but I still get reports on a regular basis that my emails have not come through. Quite frankly, this is not acceptable. The email account I use for much of my business has been established for over 10 years. I don’t understand how a GMail user can send me an email, I respond to it, and somehow my response ends up in their junk mail bin. This happens with startling frequency. Isn’t GMail smart enough to figure out that a response to an existing email is ALWAYS legit, regardless of content? And can’t GMail figure out that since hundreds of its users reply to emails that I’ve sent, from the same SMTP server with the same IP address (at least 6 or 7 years now!), that I should be considered golden? The tendency to filter spam out incorrectly may be fine for personal use, but in business where dollars are on the line, it is not acceptable.

Problem #2: “… sent on behalf of…”

GMail as an inbox collator makes perfect sense, until the recipient sees “… sent on behalf of …” in their email client. It is insanely unprofessional, particularly when the base address is nowhere near business-acceptable. For example, my GMail account is “jmjames78” or something like that (don’t recall off hand, it’s hooked up to a phone I no longer use). Now, if someone sees, “From: sent of behalf of” it isn’t the worst thing in the world. It still looks bad in my opinion, but your professional image won’t be ruined. But when I see stuff like “ sent on behalf of” I have a real problem with it. If you can’t understand what the issue is… well, I hope you don’t have to communicate much with customers! When people see this kind of thing, it makes you look like you are working for a lot of companies at once, which doesn’t convey a good image.

Problem #3: Fixing “… sent on behalf of …”

To be fair, the previous problem should be easily solved. All you need to do is set up GMail to send through the SMTP server proved for the actual account, in theory. In practice, this does not seem to be too easy. I’ve set a couple of different people up with standard POP3/SMTP accounts for my company, and all of the ones who try using GMail to pick up the email have problems. The standard email client users do not. I thought it was the mail server, so with a great headache, I moved from a self-hosted email server to a third-party email server. The problems persist. I have lost close to ten hours of my life trying to get GMail users able to get their email and send it out without the stupid “… sent on behalf of …” message. Meanwhile, I have critical features in my flagship product undeveloped, and important contracts in the works. Guess what adds money to my pocket? Guess what doesn’t? Why am I wasting my time because GMail can’t do what a copy of Outlook Express that shipped with Windows 98 can do?

Problem #4: Calendars

GMail includes some calendar functionality. It’s even nice enough to cooperate with the way Outlook and Exchange work. Sadly, it has one insanely critical flaw: in a common situation, it refuses to send invitations where you ask them to go. You see, Google accounts allow you to assign a backup email address. This is a useful idea; it is for situations like the need to send a password reset to a customer. Google, in their infinite “wisdom”, decided that if a GMail user sends an invitation to one of these backup addresses, it should really send it to the GMail account instead. This means that if I have a personal GMail account, it is now exposed to someone else who I might not want to have or see that address. It also means that if I don’t use that GMail account, I’ll never see the invitation. I’ve missed and almost missed a number of meetings in the last few months because a GMail user sent the invite to my address and it ended up in my GMail account.

Problem #5: Customer Service? What’s that?

Google is notoriously bad at customer support. Good luck even finding the phone number of someone to talk to. I’ve tried many, many times to talk to someone there, the best I was able to do was when I leveraged a PR contact I had there. Google doesn’t want you calling them. Google wants you to either email them so they can send canned responses, or to post in their forums so that other people with the same problem can say “me too” and “let me know if you ever find a fix”. As someone who’s been a paying Google customer before, I can tell you that they suck at support and service, the assumption is that anyone too stupid to not figure out their product shouldn’t be a customer, and if you don’t like the way the system was designed, you can take a hike. Google loves large scale metrics to drive product development, not actual customer feedback (even though that can be turned into a metric too!). As a result, when you have a problem… well, good luck. With other vendors, free or paid support typically rangers from “not that good” to “stellar”. For example, $259 gets me a ticket with Microsoft and their engineers are amazingly good at solving problems (once I get through the language barrier and they know what I’m talking about). Google doesn’t even have a paid option, on the other hand (hmm… I smell opportunity!).

In summary, GMail is a fine product, but its fit and finish, as well as some design decisions, make it totally inappropriate for business use. Your mileage may vary, of course. But from where I sit, as someone who interacts with GMail users on a regular basis, it has no business in a business environment.


MacBook Pro 2011, The Good and the Bad

Like many others, I had been holding my breath for the greatness of the Macbook Pro hoping some of the rumors where true while others were not.
First let’s take a look at the good which would be the obvious inclusion of the Sandy Bridge processor. The Core 2 Duo was aging gracefully, but still needed to be retired only to be replaced by a much speedier i5 offering two generations of performance boost over the Core 2 Duo. The immediate added bonus and probably the second most promoted item would be the inclusion of Light Peak, or as we have now rebranded it, Thunderbolt. With an interface that allows for 10GB of bandwidth across the interface, moving data to an SSD has never been so fast. In fact, I might want to run my games off of the external drive because of the speed. Also a couple of maintstays with the New Macbook Pro are the Firewire 800 port and two USB ports. We have the same Super drive without any mentioning of the BluRay drive at this time. Clearly Apple wants to distance itself from Sony and promote their iTunes store here. All MacBook Pros include an illuminated keyboard which they have for a couple of generations now. The resolution starts with the very familiar 1280×800 and moves upwards. We also include the familiar SD card slot which started with the 2010 generation of MacBook Pros  The one last good thing that I have to mention is that they have bumped up the hard drive capacity to 320 GB by default.  However, if you want to get an SSD, they are by no means any cheaper of an upgrade than they were a year ago.

Now time for what I consider the bad. The Macbook Air 13.3″ laptop has a superior 1440×900 resolution screen that makes me almost want that particluar laptop instead of the 13.3″ MacBook Pro. Also, and I personally hold Intel responsible for this, but the 13.3″ models also suffer from using Intel’s intregrated HD 3000 video card. This is an unfortunate departure from the nVidia chipsets in the last four generations of Macbook Pros. At this time, I have not met an Intel video chipset which I have liked. They are all slow performers and lack the power that I need just for my day to day operations. I may try the latest Macbook and change my mind, but I highly doubt this. I can usually tell when I am running a PC with an Intel graphics chip or an alternative.
Last and this is what I probably consider why I recommend anyone with a current Macbook Pro to stay away from this upgrad is that Apple has slashed the battery life with the new upgrade. They are now 3 hours less than the previous generation. That to me means that I might as well stick with my iPad for the long trips or try getting a different brand of laptop. -See Update.  I currently think a Lenovo Thinkpad T420 has my name on it. As much as I was looking forward to the new releases, Apple has done little to impress me and much to disappoint me.

As for Steve Jobs, please get well soon as I feel your company is beginning to disappoint me.

UPDATE: There was a bit of a misunderstanding on the battery life. Apparently the battery holds the same charge as before and the laptop has the same power draw as before, but the tests were changed.  As noted in a computer shopper review.  The battery life is the same in both 13.3″ laptops.  The new testing is that using the DVD drive during the operation of the laptop while the older test was based on “average” use.  Average use would be something akin to browsing the web or performing other low CPU intensive tasks.   I hope that holds accurate as I would hate to see newer generations of laptops moving towards power draining CPUs again.

Steve Ballmer Moving Microsoft in the Right Direction?

For those who don’t know me, let me establish a few positions that I have taken over the many years that I have been working in IT before me writing a piece I never thought I would write. First, I do not particularly care for Microsoft and have been known to go great lengths to avoid using or buying their products. I am even writing this on my Ubuntu laptop for now. And I won’t claim to be a free software preacher either. I feel that every job has a proper tool, many have more than just one.  For example when I am home browsing on the internet, that tool could be an Apple Product or a Windows Product, or an alternative such as Linux.  They all do the job well.  When I work, I use Windows 7 x64 bit because I need the memory for the work that I do.
Second, as much as I dislike Microsoft, I loathe Steve Ballmer even more. In my personal opinion, Steve Ballmer is the mouthpiece that rattles on endlessly as though possessed by an otherworldly spirit while the rest of the company appears to want to present itself in a better way. While many key people in Microsoft try to reach out to Open source communities and bring in developers or try and encourage hackers to work with Microsoft to improve security, Mr. Ballmer will spout ramblings of IP theft and threaten lawsuits just moments later and place bounties on the head of anyone who exploits security flaws. The man seems about as in control of Microsoft as a dog owner would be of a Rottweiler walking through a butcher shop. The man has been notorious for being a clown on stage and jumping around like the dancing monkey boy moniker he has earned.

Which is why as much as it pains me to say this, but I feel Sam Diaz of ZDnet is wrong on saying that Steve Ballmer should remove  himself. Over the past five years, Microsoft has suffered a lot of brain drain and replaced a great many good managers with technical goals with business men that are out for pure profit.  One such great loss include one of my personal idols Ray Ozzy.  The problem with losing those engineers, the visionaries of the company is that eventually without the visionaries, the company runs out of ideas to market and lacks direction.  Ballmer finally realized this and appears to be changing his tune.  You see, he has shown something of what I would call growth.  He made a mistake and is showing signs that he has learned from that mistake.  Much like when I tear apart a computer and for some reason, I misplace a jumper or get the wrong power supply or purchase a CPU that won’t work with the existing motherboard. I can easily just abandon the computer or give it to some one else for a discount price because I can’t make it work.  Or I can try and troubleshoot the problem, fix the computer and learn something from the experience.  Another example would be taking the star basket ball player out of the game for being a ball hog after he finally learns how to pass to the other members on his team.  Steve Ballmer seems to have learned one of the valuable lessons in running a business.  That is running a technology company with only businessmen as executives is a bad way to run a business.

Now for why I feel so strongly about this.  For the last decade I have seen more people chase after jobs in the “business” world rather than the engineering world because they didn’t want to deal with the complexities of math and feel they could get an equal or better paying job than some one who actually did the heavy thinking.  I have a co-worker that chose to be an manager of information systems instead of a computer science major for just such a reason.  Bill Gates spoke for years about the need for more H1B Visas because of the talent shortage in engineers.  Steve Ballmer didn’t do much to help the problem by showing everyone that marketing and sales were important to the business while letting the engineers disappear.  Hopefully this is a high profile enough movement and successful enough that more companies will push to get engineers and more technical people into positions of leadership.  With that notion perhaps, and this is a long shot, people will see an engineering degree as a way to make real money instead of thinking the only college degree is an MBA.

So yes,  I want Steve Ballmer to stay as the CEO of Microsoft, not because I like the guy.  Not because I like the company.  Not even because I don’t like the company.  I want Steve Ballmer to be CEO so he can put more engineers in power and hopefully set an example that sometimes the person with the engineering degree gets to call the shots, which by what I still call a long shot, but start getting more students to enroll in college as engineers.  These hopes are the reason that I feel Steve Ballmer is moving Microsoft in the right direction.

Hold off on Intel Sandy Bridge for a month

Intel found a problem last week with the new H67 and P67 chipset used for the Sandy Bridge processors and decided to halt shipments last night.  The problem will be resolved by the end of February so hold off on the Sandy Bridge system purchases until the motherboard chipset is resolved.  Apparently the problem involves a slow degradation of the four 3 Gbps SATA ports but not the two 6 Gbps SATA ports, and it only affects 5% of the chipsets after 3 years of typical usage.  Doesn’t sound like a serious problem, but you’re better off waiting for a fixed chipset.

Actually, you won’t have a choice but to wait since the motherboards have already been pulled.  Newegg has already yanked all the P67 and H67 motherboards and we probably won’t see products until end of February or possibly as late as April for volume shipments.  This basically means a halt to all Sandy Bridge products since there’s no point buying a CPU if you can’t get a motherboard for it.  If you already have an H67 or P67 motherboard, I would ask the vendor for a recall and I’d expect them to send me a replacement.

Just the Fax please.

Today I came across an oddity which I can not explain. I have dealt with firms before that have all sorts of policies which make little sense in a digital world. Some of them I understand, such as older firms not accepting credit cards or checks. Various people not trusting online payments due to security concerns. Some people simply do not understand technology and take a cautious stance. Some do not feel that their business needs the additional headache to thrive or a business may just not want to grow beyond those confines of their current limitations.

That brings me to the software company that I had to deal with this week.   They went the extra step and built their online store up with an interface to accept credit cards and directed customers to use just such a thing. They are also used to dealing with companies that prefer to order through PO verses using a credit card. But here comes the caveat. They would only accept the purchase order by fax or snail mail. Apparently emailing a purchase order is completely out of the question. I have dealt with a few companies that would not accept a purchase order by email, but this marks the first time that a software company happened to be the one requesting just such a thing. What made this even better is that the purchase order had to be faxed to an ‘800’ number so they were actually paying to receive a purchase order that could have been received free of charge by email.

How many companies do you know that still only accept orders or even payment by methods deemed almost obsolete? And why do they do this?  Feel free to comment your position on this subject as I am so very curious as to why a software company of all people would not accept a PO via email.

Solution for an empty “Network Connections” in Windows

Yesterday, I had to do some work on our Forefront Threat Management Gateway machine. When I brought up the TMG console, it gave me a strange error: “Refresh failed” with an error code of 0x80004005. It was inexplicable. A few days earlier, we noticed that the “Network Connections” in control panel showed no connections at all, but ipconfig showed them as expected. I ended up placing a call to Microsoft support. They suspected that the TMG console issue was caused by the inability to enumerate the network connections, and I was inclined to agree. Their specialist for these things said that there’s a registry key which sometimes gets corrupted, and you can delete it and reboot the server to fix the issue. After carefully reviewing to ensure that nothing else was the issue, that’s just what we did. After the reboot, the network connections showed, and the TMG console issues were solved as well. To do this fix yourself (the usual disclaimer: back up your registry before editing!), look up the following key:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Network and delete the “Config” value.


Put the scroll bar out to pasture already!

Put the scroll bar out to pasture already!

Once you’ve tried finger based scrolling on smartphones and tablets, it makes you realize how antiquated the Desktop User Interface (UI) is, especially the scroll bar. A plugin called “Wet Banana” adds mouse drag tablet-like scrolling but it’s about time all desktop operating systems get a UI upgrade.


Actually, an alternative to implementation at the OS level is to implement this feature into the mouse driver!  The user can immediately use this in every application that supports the standard scroll functionality of the existing scroll wheel.  Windows Explorer, Microsoft Outlook, MS Word, or any application will work with a mouse driver.

The scroll wheel on the standard mouse already has two methods of scrolling in Windows.  One, you can roll it.  Two, you can press down and toggle the speed and direction of the page panning.  But neither mode is as intuitive as the Wet Banana plugin where a user flicks it in the desired direction with the desired speed to make it glide until friction stops it or until the user puts the brakes on.

I’ve asked Jedediah Smith and various operating system makers (or anyone) to create a custom Windows and/or Linux mouse driver?  Replace the traditional functionality of the scroll wheel with the exact same physics and behavior of Wet Banana.  The existing mouse driver already has the ability to control the scrolling, direction, and speed. It just needs a better human interface.  I hope someone will meet this need.

Intel ‘Sandy Bridge’ i5 2500K plus mobo for $280

Wow, Micro Center really has a great bundle deal on the new Intel “Sandy Bridge” i5 2500K quad-core unlocked CPU and GA-P67A-UD3 LGA 1155 P67 ATX Motherboard for $280!  These new CPUs are the newest and most advanced consumer CPUs to date.

Note that this price is for in-store pickup only, but they still offer some great non-bundled deals.  Any of the “K” designated models are multiplier unlocked which is the only practical method of Sandy Bridge overclocking.  Base clock overclocking is now impractical because everything is tied into a single base clock and it forces too many components to run in overdrive which severely limits the degree to which you can boost the system.

This particular “P67” motherboard is needed to support memory and CPU overclocking (and apparently no HDMI, DVI, or VGA out even though the CPU has the GPU built in).  The “H67” motherboards support graphics overclocking.  Both support the integrated on-die CPU graphics of the new Sandy Bridge architecture.  And for those of you new to “Sandy Bridge”, here’s a good primer on the new architecture and review.

This particular bundle is great for power users without the need for an additional graphics card as the on-die GPU built into the CPU is as powerful as an entry level discrete graphics card.  Gamers will use this system with a high end graphics card for the best gaming performance.

Because technology isn't just for geeks