DStv Explora Setup and review

Here in South Africa, one doesn’t have too many options when it comes to TV channels. The public broadcaster has 3 free to air channels, while a fourth free to air, e-tv, is a private business. On the pay TV side of things, there is either DStv, or StarSat (previously known as Top TV,) both of which are satellite broadcasters.

We’ve had DStv since 2008, when we purchased at that time, the top of the line SD PVR decoder. The device could display 2 different TV channels at the same time, while also recording a 3rd channel in the background. The resolution was standard definition, which wasn’t a problem when all the TV’s in the house were small CRT based things. However, since I got the large TV in the lounge a few years ago, putting up with SD quality on that screen has been slowly driving me nuts. Throw in the at times instability of the PVR and I found myself itching to upgrade.

DStv introduced some HD decoders a few years back, but apart from one device that offered the same features as the SD decoder, they were limited to 1 view, 1 record. Throw in the fact that these decoders were even more unstable and I decided to wait a little longer.

Last weekend, I finally ended up purchasing the new DStv Explora. The Explora is a new and modern HD decoder, although still sadly limited to 1 view, 1 record. The interface on the decoder is a lot more modern than any other decoder DStv has ever produced, and it has a 2TB hard drive inside, which ensures much more space for recordings. With the SD decoder I found myself often butting up against the recording limit.

The Explora is securely packaged in the box, wrapped in a nice layer of bubble wrap. The device isn’t too heavy, but feels solidly built despite being mainly plastic. There were no creaks or other defects out the box. Unfortunately for whatever reason, the power supply has now migrated from being internal to being a power brick. I suppose it makes sense that if there is a power surge or something, it’s much easier to replace a power brick than the whole decoder. Still, power bricks are often unsightly and contribute to cabling clutter.

The old SD decoder is quite noisy, with a very distinct fan drone emanating from the machine at all times. The Explora is a lot quiter, and seems to run cooler as well, despite it’s vastly upgraded internals. Hard drive noise is also far less evident, thanks to modern drives which are a lot quieter than the 250GB model in the SD decoder.

I chose to install the Explora myself, without making use of an installer. There was no need to pay someone to do the job, since we already have a large enough dish and have a twin cable feed coming in from the dish. From there, the process is simple:

  • Screw cables from the dish into the top inputs on the included multi-switch.
  • Connect one output cable on the side of the multi-switch to the Explora.
  • Connect two cables from the bottom of the multi-switch into the inputs of the existing SD decoder.
  • Use a F connector splitter to split the feed from the RF output of the SD decoder. One cable goes to the RF input port of the Explora, the other cable runs to the secondary TV that was always hooked up.
  • Use HDMI cable to hook up Explora to my amp, which in turn feeds the TV.
  • The reason to interconnect the 2 decoders is to enable DStv’s Extraview feature. With this feature enabled, you are able to use 2 interlinked decoders on the same subscription for a nominal amount every month. With my particular setup, we can theoretically watch 3 completely separate TV channels, whilst recording 2 different programs at once.

The installation really isn’t difficult if you already have a previous DStv in your house and it meets the requirements for the Explora. The rest is just an exercise in patience as you connect multiple cables. Depending if you are making use of Extraview to interlink 2 decoders or not, you may need to purchase 3 extra co-axial cables and a F connector splitter.

So far, so good. The Explora has been running a week with no problems that I’ve detected. Most of the channels are still SD resolution, but they are being upscaled better than the old SD decoder could ever do. HD content on the other hand looks lovely, if not quite Blu-ray lovely. Still makes a huge difference in things like live sport though.

Overall, the Explora is a worthwhile upgrade. From any SD decoder it’s a big leap, while the increased space and stability puts it above the older HD decoders. Time will ultimately tell how stable the Explora will be, but I am strangely optimistic the device will hold up well over the coming years. Although the device is quite pricey, it has been on special a few times already.

Having fun with Solid State Drives

A week ago, our school purchased 3 SSD’s, to run a small experiment on the viability of replacing many of our mechanical hard drives with SSD’s instead. Our older classroom PC’s have 160GB mechanical drives in them, any newer machine generally has 500GB mechanical drives. Most of the the time, usage of the mechanical drive doesn’t surpass 50GB total. Since all staff documents are redirected to their network profiles, most staff don’t store info on the local PC’s themselves.

We purchased 3 Samsung 840 EVO 120GB drives. One was to be installed in our staff work room, and the other two in classrooms with different types of PC, in order to get a decent sample range. One PC is much newer than the other, with the older model being what most classrooms currently have.

In order to save time, I decided to use the included cloning utility to do a straight clone from the mechanical to SSD. This way we save time, transfer a working system as is with minimal downtime and we don’t use up activations on Windows and Office. In the past, I’ve had issues with cloning software being unable to clone from a larger to smaller drive, but I’m pleased to say that Samsung Magician was able to clone 2 of the drives successfully.

As luck would have it, the oldest PC out of the 3 kept throwing up this error when the clone got to 100%

WP_20140224_001

I scoured the net, but I couldn’t find much in the way of information on this particular problem. It could be the fact that the motherboard doesn’t support the AHCI standard, despite supporting SATA 300 ports. I’m guessing when MSI designed these particular boards back in the day, they were trying to save every penny possible, and ended up using the version Intel’s ICH9 chipset that didn’t support AHCI.

Anyway, solving this problem was a little more tricky. Samsung Magician would not finish the job, no matter what. Upgrading to a newer version didn’t help, nor did a typical restart. Eventually, I had to turn to 3rd party tools if I wanted to get the job done. Clonezilla refused to clone the drive, due to the larger-smaller problem. Trying to force Clonezilla did result in a copy, but the copy refused to work no matter what. I turned to Parted Live next. Using the included GParted, I copied the existing 2 partitions off of the mechanical drive and onto the SSD, while resizing the main partition to fit. This time, both partitions successfully copied. Trying to boot the drive however simply resulted in a blinking cursor. Turns out that GParted couldn’t create a proper partition table. Using the Windows 7 Emergency Recovery Disk, I let it detect and repair problems, which it duly did by creating a proper partition table.

After the required reboot, the new drive was up and running, easily maxing out the SATA port, despite the chipset not supporting AHCI and all the advanced features it brings. Even on this older slower PC, applications feel snappier to open up, boot time is reduced, and there’s almost no sign of typical mechanical thrashing you normally encounter the first few minutes after a PC starts up.

The other classroom PC has a SATA 600 port, so performance on that machine is screaming. The teacher in that class is actually the head of IT, so I look forward to him putting the drive to good use and providing some feedback. The drive in the staff work room is performing, but I suspect Windows needs to be reinstalled. Even before the clone, Windows was not too healthy on that particular PC, and the SSD hasn’t magically cured the symptoms.

Overall, I suspect that despite the still rather high price, we will be making more use of SSD’s in the future. While a 1TB mechanical hard drive is about half the price of these 120GB units, the speed and other benefits of the SSD are not easily ignored. Older computers in the classrooms will get an extended lease on life due to these drives, and that is a good thing as it will allow us to focus on other IT projects for a change, instead of constantly replacing the older computers. Eventually, the older PC’s will have to be replaced of course, but an extension of life is welcome for the time being.

Understanding Windows 8x Secure Boot

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

This past week at work, I installed Windows 8.1 Pro on my workstation. While a lot of people don’t like Windows 8, I’ve long since gotten used to it, and I rather like 8.1’s speed and features. Plus, I need to have it to effectively manage Internet Explorer 10 and 11 on our client machines, which is another story.

I wanted to do a full UEFI install of Windows 8.1, as well as enable Secure Boot for security purposes. However, when I enabled Secure Boot and restarted, I had no graphics output at all. I’d forgotten that my computer’s dedicated graphics card doesn’t support UEFI GOP, so I won’t be able to use Secure Boot while I have that graphics card installed.

I’ve had some experience with UEFI’s Secure Boot feature in the past, but the events of installing 8.1 onto my PC helped solidify a lot of concepts for me. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve picked up:

  • You need an Intel 7 or 8 series chipset motherboard. The X79 series is also supported past a certain firmware range from what I’ve read. Not sure about AMD based motherboards, as I haven’t used an AMD board in years.
  • Intel 6 series chipset boards are not supported, despite having UEFI.
  • Your hard drive has to be formatted in GPT partition style.
  • Your graphics card needs to support UEFI GOP, or your system will not boot. From what little I can find out, Intel HD 2500, HD 4000 and up on board graphics are supported as well as the Nvidia Geforce 700 series. The Nvidia GTX 680 had a firmware update release that let it work as well, but I haven’t heard anything about the lower end 600 series cards. Again, not sure about AMD cards.

So just to recap the above list – Must be a modern Intel and presumably AMD motherboard of the last 18 months, and your graphics card needs to be compatible. If you don’t have the correct combination, your PC will not boot with Secure Boot enabled. You will have no graphics output on your monitors at all.

Now here’s the next part that makes things so complicated and confusing for people. If your hardware combination doesn’t support Secure Boot, you can turn it off and enable the Compatibility Support Module (CSM) of the motherboard. With the CSM enabled, you’ll be able to use your old graphics card just fine. This enables your newer office/school PC with low end Geforce 210/Geforce 610’s and so on to run.

If you do an UEFI install of Windows 8.1, but leave Secure Boot disabled, you’ll get the following watermark on the desktop:

windows-81-secure-boot-build-9600

Microsoft have released an update which will make this watermark go away. While Secure Boot isn’t working, at least you won’t have this reminder in the corner every time you log in.

As time goes on, more and more discrete graphics cards will properly support UEFI GOP out the box, enabling more computers to have Secure Boot enabled and working correctly. While there has been written a lot of things about Secure Boot, it brings a lot of modern security to a system that has been sorely lacking it in the past.

Intel network cards rock

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

In the past on this blog, I’ve bitched about Realtek network cards and their sometimes incredibly buggy drivers that lead to many a head scratching problem. That being said, I ran into a case last week that was even more annoying.

We have been replacing the last of our Windows XP computers with new or reshuffled Windows 7 PC’s. One of the XP computers I took out was sufficient to run Windows 7 at a useable speed. Said computer consisted of 2GB RAM, 160GB SATA hard drive, Geforce 7100 graphics card, Intel Core 2 Duo E7300 and the Asus P5K SE/EPU motherboard. By no means modern, but enough to last a few more years as a light duty Windows 7 box.

It should be noted that the motherboard isn’t Windows 7 certified, but that’s usually not too much of a major issue. The board was certified to run up to Vista 64 bit, so installing 7 wouldn’t be a stretch. In fact, I have one of these exact same systems at home that runs 7 fine.

As is now the norm, I was preparing to boot over the network to let my custom MDT Deployment task run. Went into the BIOS, made sure the network card boot ROM was enabled. Next step is to boot off the network. This is where my plan came to an abrupt halt. After going through POST, the network card would sit waiting to detect the network for a short while, before failing to PXE boot and moving on to booting off the hard drive. No matter what I did, I was unable to boot off the network. Soon as the PC got into Windows, the card was fully functional and I could use the network. Inside Windows the card is labelled an Atheros L1 Gigabit adapter, but when you are waiting for it to PXE boot, it labels itself an Attansic L1 adapter. No big deal really, since Atheros bought Attansic.

I rebooted again to try some more tricks, when something caught my eye. Up until about halfway through the Windows XP boot screen, the network card has no link light, and the port on the switch also has no link light. It didn’t take long to figure out that the network card was not initialising until it was almost in Windows, after the drivers had been loaded. This meant that this computer would never be able to PXE boot, and no suggestions off the internet helped. Someone spoke of injecting the drivers into the boot image in MDT, but this would do no good since the card does not initialise until Windows is loaded. In short, network booting is broken on this motherboard, and there is no fix for it. There is no updated BIOS to help either.

Now that I think about it, I could have made a boot ISO with MDT and used it to boot the computer, but that would entail burning a DVD which in my mind was a waste. My idea instead was to slot in a replacement dedicated network card and network boot using that. We had an old Intel Pro 100 card laying around. Installed the card, went into the BIOS and immediately had the option of being able to boot using the Intel card’s boot ROM. To cut a long story short, the Intel card just worked, and I was able to finish my task.

This incident just highlighted again why I prefer Intel network cards on my network. They work reliably, have a good set of features, solid drivers, and their network booting has always worked for me without fail.

The week that was

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment

The first full week back at work for 2014 has come and gone. Although the kids were only back for 3 of the 5 days last week, it was a pretty hectic time. We have a handful of new staff, though not as many as previous years. Other staff who arrived during the course of 2013 have more than settled in and have become part of the fabric of the school.

From the IT side of things, we’ve had a busy, though not insane time. Compared to the start of 2013, things have gone a lot smoother this year. We discovered a handful of our computers that were very reluctant to start up after the long holiday break – this is due to their power supply units being very crappy parts. These will be replaced in due course over the next while, which will sort that problem out and also lead to some quieter computers.

After a long delay, we were finally able to get 6U swing frame cabinets from our one supplier. We received the boxes on Friday, only to discover that instead of a pre-assembled cabinet, we got flat packed cardboard boxes. While it is annoying to have to assemble the cabinet, thankfully it isn’t too difficult, and while the packed in instructions could be better, we managed to get by. Now the fun part is trying to find a spot where we can remove the old cabinet in our chosen venue, mount the new one, replace the switch with a POE version and then re-patch all 24 floor cables down into the patch panel. That’s going to mean a lot of time spent on the top of a ladder, which I am not looking forward to at all.

4 new PC’s also arrived on Friday, which will help us finally eliminate Windows XP from the network, along with Office 2007. One current PC needs to be formatted and reloaded, and it can replace another XP box. I am extremely glad that we will finally be rid of XP, all on Windows 7. The next step is to try and get more machines onto 64 bit, in eventual preparation before we move to Windows 8.1 or whatever next version of Windows.

One PC we replaced on Thursday went a lot smoother than I anticipated really. The bursar’s assistant has always been a very prickly person when it comes to her PC. We bought a machine last year for her, but could never get her migrated as she was always too busy. Finally we did it last week after her old PC finally irritated her enough. The swap over went so smoothly I was actually surprised. With the exception of a spread sheet that needed to be recreated from Quattro Pro, everything seems to be in order.

I released Internet Explorer 10 across the school, which turned out to be a slight disaster. I released it in a limited fashion last year, and while the staff work room was a good testing area, one thing wasn’t accounted for: new users logging onto the computers. The problem with IE 10 is that it longer accepts configuration info from a certain section of Group Policy. Normally I wouldn’t be too phased, except that this section includes the setting for proxy servers. Big problem there. Old users would have had the settings stored from when IE 9 was on the computers, but new users wouldn’t have these settings, resulting in no internet or access to Outlook Web Access. Suffice to say, we are now busy removing IE 10 from all classroom computers until such stage as it can be better managed. Offices we’ll leave it on, since those are highly static areas that don’t see new people too often.

Lastly, a lot of time was spent getting info into our new school admin package, Staffroom. Grade 8 pupils were imported in bulk, as well as individual new learners. A temporary data capturer is busy updating all the student records, slow process that it may be. I’m busy pushing everyone as hard as I can at the moment, as I really want us to get away from EduAdmin. The more we keep using EduAdmin, the more we realise just how out-dated and un user friendly the package is. Hopefully this week I can take the absentee lists from last week and get them captured into Staffroom.

From tomorrow, things really should start settling down and everyone should start getting into the swing of things. It’s going to be busy again, but hopefully less hectic than this last week. Running around like a headless chicken is never fun.

Categories: General

A look back at 2013

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

2013 is just hours away from being history. With the upcoming year less than a day away, it got me thinking about the course of 2013. In February 2014, it will be 5 years since I started at my current job, and this has made me a bit nostalgic about all the things that have happened over the years. However, let me focus on 2013 for this post.

2013 started off with my ex colleague and I moving into our own office, but only after a delay due to Telkom messing us around with moving the phone line for the ADSL connection. The upside was that we now had an office of our own, with safety for our possessions, and the ability to close our door if we didn’t want to be disturbed. The downside was that the room doesn’t have air conditioning, which is something I got very used to over the years sitting in the computer room. It’s not so bad in winter, but in summer time it is a bit tough to stay cool and focussed.

The start of March saw my ex colleague not have his contract renewed, and he was subsequently let go. He was absolutely stunned, but it was something that was coming for a long time. A combination of an honest lack of skills and severe personal issues ended up in him burning all the bridges at the school. As such, I spent roughly 2 and a half months working on my own again. I managed it, but it is a highly draining situation to be in. Luckily we were able to find a very decent and competent replacement, and my new partner and I have had a good 7 months together. All the staff enjoy working with him, and his work ethic has also inspired me to keep my game up.

After a long drawn out process involving lots of red tape, our CCTV system was expanded throughout the school. A new server was installed to handle the demands of the footage, while the CCTV company installed the extra IP cameras. Compared to the first time cameras were installed 3 years ago, the procedure this time went pretty darn smoothly. I guess it also helps that I’ve become very familiar with Axis Camera Station, so I was able to do a lot of the work myself. Changing the camera compression from MJPEG to H.264 also saw a radical increase in the amount of days footage we could store, at a higher frame rate to boot. Colour me happy on that project.

Our Avaya VOIP system continues to run like a tank, with the exception of the DECT handsets. These have dropped out numerous times this year, usually completely randomly. Our telecoms company have been unable to resolve the issue, despite firmware updates and extensive troubleshooting. The best guess anyone can come up with is that we simply don’t have enough base stations around the school, and this is somehow triggering these utterly random disconnects from the phone network. Apart from that however, the normal phone base stations are as solid as a rock and just keep working and working.

The core network got some upgrades in the way of some new HP POE switches, as well as some new 6U swing frame cabinets to replace the old gnarly 4U fixed cabinets that cannot close with our existing switches installed. The POE switches eliminate cable clutter in the cabinets, cut out points of failure by needing to use POE injectors, and will make life a lot easier once we start rolling out campus wide Wi-Fi at the end of 2014. We did have 2 switches go faulty on us, but thankfully they were replaced under guarantee without too much fuss. Cabling to classrooms and venues continues to be cleaned up slowly, as time permits.

Apart from the CCTV server, no new physical servers were purchased this year. I decommissioned 2 older servers, so there is less heat and noise in the server room. My MDT 2010 server was shut down, and I made use of the old CCTV server as my new deployment platform. MDT 2012 took what was great about 2010 and polished it 6 ways to Sunday. As a bonus, since it now uses the Windows 8 kernel, it looks like some machines that refused to connect to the server will now do so, thanks to having a network driver it can actually make use of. My old school admin server nearly died on me with a faulty hard drive, a week before reports were due. I stayed late and virtualised that machine. Took a long time, but it was worth the piece of mind.

Desk printers had a bad year, thanks to the Samsung ML-2160 fiasco. 5 out of the 6 printers we purchased have had to go in for service to have the PCB replaced. One machine has had to go back in for a second time. Suffice to say, my partner and I have not been impressed at all, despite the fact that the little printer is actually a decent machine, when it works.

Our internet connection was upgraded in February to an 8/10Mb ADSL line, which is 80% stable. There are times when the line still struggles, or the router locks up, requiring a hard reset. As is usual, with increased speed comes higher usage. Although I haven’t run the stats, I think we’ve used over 2TB worth of traffic for 2013. We’ve been looking for alternative connections that are faster and more reliable than ADSL, but so far we’ve had no luck. There are options, but the prices offered makes your hair want to turn white, when you consider the fact that we are a school. We will continue the search in 2014.

Software wise, the number of computers still running Windows XP continued to decrease as we did our best to purchase new machines, or to upgrade existing machines with RAM and get them onto Windows 7. There are about 5-6 PC’s still on XP, but they should be gone by April/May, when Microsoft kills support for XP. Thankfully this also means the end of creaky old Pentium 4 and Celeron computers.

After some lengthy investigations, we’ve decided to move over to a cloud based school administration package called Staffroom. Our current package, EduAdmin, has not really been going anywhere, not to mention the constant frustration we have suffered with the package. I’ve also voiced numerous times that I need to take a step back away from generating reports and so on, but I guess I’ll know by the end of the first term if that comes to pass.

On another note, my partner and I have been reaching out to other schools, trying to start a little movement for IT admins and managers in schools to talk to each other, swap ideas and information, and perhaps even form some sort of consortium to purchase hardware or negotiate internet connections. With the growth of BYOD, it’s also vital that we talk to each other and learn from successes and mistakes. 2014 is going to be very interesting year in regards to that I think, and I look forward to growing our little group of connections.

While there is a lot I haven’t touched on, I would say that 2013 was a pretty decent year for IT in the school. There were no major system crashes, no malware outbreaks, and internet downtime was beyond our control. Equipment got replaced and upgraded, the network expanded and grew and so did our skills and knowledge. I look forward to 2014 and continuing the growth and change in the school. A number of exciting things have been budgeted for that will allow for growth and improvements, so let us see how well 2014 turns out. I for one and quite upbeat about the coming year Smile

Categories: General Tags:

Dying hard drive woes

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

There are few things more annoying or scary to an IT person than a dying/dead hard drive. Annoying because you are often expected to make the drive magically come back to life when often it’s beyond any help; scary because if it’s an important drive that was never backed up, the contents of said drive may never be recovered.

Last week it seemed a perfect storm hit me. On Friday morning I checked our school admin server for errors in the Event Viewer for an unrelated matter. I then noticed that there were warnings in the log that the hard drive controller reported imminent failure. This was a Seagate 500GB model that was about 2.5 years old. I installed SeaTools on the drive and it confirmed that the drive was not healthy. I made the snap decision that I would virtualise the server to our XenServer that afternoon. While I had backups of the school admin server, the server could not afford any down time as we needed to enter and process academic marks.

That afternoon I started the process and got the server virtualised. It took a long time, but luckily everything worked ok in the end. All the files transferred. I shut down the sick server, booted the copy in Xen up and went on getting that server up to speed. One of the side effects is that I now have one less old server taking up space in the rack, and the virtualised copy is more robust than it had been on the physical server. Big sigh of relief, problem solved!

On the weekend, I booted up into my Windows 8 drive at home to do some work in Hyper-V. I’d noticed in the preceding week that this hard drive had vanished a few times during boot up, but I wasn’t too concerned. I did my work in Windows 8, but when I was shutting down, I started noticing some noises coming from the drive, like the motor powering down and up. Not the usual click of death, but a fatal wound anyway. This is a Seagate 250GB model.

The next day when I tried to boot into Windows 8, it wouldn’t get past the sign in screen. It would simply sit spinning around endlessly. More noises started coming from the drive. Boot back into Windows 7, run SeaTools. As suspected, this drive was on death’s door. I wanted to save my Windows 8 drive so that I wouldn’t need to reinstall and end up downloading all the updates again. There’s luckily no special data on that drive, besides the OS. I don’t have many spare drives laying around at home, so I ripped out the only other 250GB I had, which was in my old PC.

I was determined to clone the drive, but I had no luck. Drive Image XML would bum out after a minute as it hit problems on the drive. ImageX would also crash when it hit those problems. Clonezilla would crash when hitting those areas as well. The Unix DD command copied about 30GB before it crashed out, despite being told to run through errors. ddrescue managed to go through the whole drive, but it too crashed at the end. Perhaps I should have tried again. When I booted back into Windows 7, checkdisk took almost 45 minutes repairing file system damage to the cloned drive.

Unfortunately, said cloned drive refused to boot, despite all the files being there. Booting up off the Windows 8 DVD didn’t help, as it didn’t recognise the drive as a valid Windows 8 install, so I couldn’t run any of the automated repair tools. Then the cloned drive started making noises! Ran SeaTools and it failed that drive as well. Oddly, after I changed SATA ports and ran SeaTools again, the clone drive passed this time. However, I don’t trust this judgement.

As it stands at this moment, the original 250GB hard drive will boot, but will hang when trying to log into Windows and it is definitely a dying drive. The clone drive works but looks like it is terminal as well.

The scary part is that we are always taught to back up our data. Hard drive sizes have shot up in recent years, currently up to 4TB. Backing up to DVD is not really worth it or feasible anymore due to this size jump. The cloud makes sense for documents and a small photo collection, but becomes impractical for OS level type backups. External hard drives are probably the easiest, but they too can fail. It’s an interesting problem I don’t think we’ve yet managed to fully wrap our heads around.

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