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Archive for January, 2009

Ultimate Boot CD for Windows

January 18, 2009 Leave a comment

If you are a techie, a geek, a computer power user or even someone who is just interested in computers, at some point or another, you’ve had to repair a computer that has either died dut to a software crash, or had to try and disinfect a computer that has been compromised by malware, i.e. viruses, spyware, keyloggers etc….

Most of the time, the computer will contain vital information, photos, huge music collection, projects and so on. If it’s just a software crash, taking the hard drive out and putting it in another computer will work, although there may not be time for it A better solution in that case is to back up the data to another drive or DVD, and format the drive and start again. However, since the operating system isn’t working, getting hold of the data is tricky. If the computer is infected with malware, trying to clean it out inside Windows usually doesn’t work, since the infection can hide and come back again. The best case then is to boot the computer using another operating system and scan from it.

There have always been tools to do these kinds of tasks, but for a long time they were either DOS based, or needed to be run from 3.5″ floppy drives. Network administrators have had that issue in particualr with Symantec Ghost, which was a pain to make boot floppies for. The solution slowly came about in the form of creating a bootable cd that had space for many troubleshooting applications. There are Linux based live cd’s that do this job quite well, but they often hit stumblings blocks: they can’t write properly to NTFS drives, and they can’t run Windows based cleaning tools.

The solution to this came about by using BartPE. BartPE was a tool that was designed to give a graphical Windows user interface while working in a pre-boot execution environment. This let users access NTFS drives and run Windows based tools. However, BartPE needed a lot of tools to make it useful, and not everyone had the time or bandwidth to get these tools, let alone get them configured for the PE environment.

Using BartPE, a small group of people decided to make a boot cd that would answer the needs of people who had been requesting it while using the original Ultimate Boot CD. For the full story on how the Windows version came about, read the history at www.ubcd4win.com

I built my first UBCD4WIN disk earlier today, and I’m blown away by the amount of effort they put into this project. I don’t think even the author of BartPE could have imagined how his creation would be so used. It has just about every tool a technician could need to backup data, browse a network, as well as disinfect an infected computer. What’s more, you can add to the disk certain applications that are PE compatible. This opens up an even wider realm of possibilities.

My only concern is that it can possibly consume more memory than some older computers have, but I think it’s a worthy tradeoff. Also, the project is becoming so big that they will soon run out of space on CD. From what I’ve read, they are going to be moving over to DVD in a while, which lets them offer a Linux based solution on the same disk as well, which could be used for computers running Linux. This will negate the need to have multiple disks. Truly, it will become the Ultimate Boot DVD. I think there will also be an option to create a bootable USB flash drive, since that is also becoming popular these days.

To end this long post off, I suggest you download and play around with the program. It could save you many hours in the future.

Smoothwall

January 18, 2009 Leave a comment

The Linux operating system has always been exceptionally versatile, finding use in many areas of computing. From cell phones to super computers, its been all over the show. One little niche its carved out for itself has been in creating versatile network firewalls. These sit at the network edge in a small business, school or whatever, securing the network and possibly also doing filtering, access control and more.

Many distributions have come and gone, but one that has come near to being the top distro is Smoothwall. For more information on the project and on its history, visit the site.

This past week, I was busy working at my old high school again, doing some odds and ends maintenance work, getting them ready for the upcoming term. One of the tasks I did was replace the IPCop firewall I had put in a few months earlier with the Smoothwall. The reasons I did this was because Smoothwall had a much more active community around it, the product is more up to date than IPCop, and there are useful modifications available for it, unlike IPCop. If it sounds like I’m knocking IPCop, I’m not. They do a good job, but it wasn’t meeting the needs that it was meant for anymore. (IPCop was a fork of Smoothwall done many years ago, and has since slowly branched out on their own)

The installation of the smoothie (a beloved nickname for the project) went easily. The 2.6 kernel in the distro really makes things easy and fast. Overall time to install was about 10 minutes, not counting the time inserting a new hard drive into the host computer. Once it was up, I proceeded to set up the ISP details, dynamic dns and so forth, all of which went well. The user interface is really slick and responsive, unlike IPCop which feels a bit sluggish at times. Next step was to let the smoothie update itself. This lead to my first minor gripe, in that there isn’t any form of visible progress when the updates are running. If it was not for the flashing lights of the iBurst device, I would have thought the device frozen. Next gripe was that the box didn’t reboot itself after the updates, which made me nervous, as I didn’t want to reboot the box while the updates were possibly still applying.

After waiting a few minutes, I did reboot, and to my joy everything was running fine. All that was left now was to add one or two mods to the box and configure them. After that, the device just ran wonderfully, and still is. I honestly feel that it won’t have the sporadic freezes that IPCop had, and it will run without issues for months now.

My only major gripe about Smoothwall is that half the features you want are unavailable in the Community Edition. Things like Active Directory authentication, more VPN options and so on are all limited to the paying editions of the product. This seems to be a trend, as most of the other Linux firewall distros follow the same model. A company will release a product that whets the appetite, but leaves you wanting the better product. The only products that I’ve seen that don’t follow this model are IPCop and a FreeBSD based system called PFSense.

All in all, Smoothwall is a worthwhile addition to a small to medium sized network, and for the free price, it does its job extremely well. I look forward to version 4 someday, where I think there will be a raft of new features.

ADSL self installation

January 12, 2009 1 comment

A short while ago, my dad and I decided that the time had come to upgrade to an ADSL connection at home. The price of dial up, along with the performance, was getting harder and harder to swallow every month. Unfortunately, here in South Africa, dial up is often the cheapest solution many consumers see, and for that purpose, many people still use it. The internet is no longer optimised for dial up, with many sites featuring rich Flash content, or other dymanic content, commonly called “Web 2.0”

We decided to go with the incumbent telecoms operator, Telkom, as it would lead to ease of use when paying the bill. The promising competitor to Telkom, Neotel, is still struggling to expand coverage across the country and were not worth waiting for any more. While I detest Telkom, we really didn’t have much other choice. Wireless ISP’s are available, but there are far too many horror stories out there, and as such, they were not worth looking into. 3G connectivity is also not an option, due to it’s fairly high price on the larger bundles, as well as some bad latency issues.

3 days after we applied at a Telkom Direct shop, we got a call saying that our line had been upgraded to ADSL ready, and that we could collect our router and package at the shop. For some reason, our phone line had been dead for almost 2 days before that call, probably due to the switchover giving issues. We proceeded to go to the shop and get the bundle. To my suprise, the router we were given was not the Billion model I had asked about, but was instead one of the Telkom Mega 105WR routers, a sort of home made brand. Despite asking, we couldn’t get the Billion router. One bad experience under the belt already.

Got home after that, and I started to wire everything up. Not too hard, as instructions are pretty clear. Unfortunaltely, that’s when the horrors started. The line didn’t want to constantly stay up, so I was unable to even use the guest account to validate our ADSL line. When I did eventually get there, the page kept timing out. That left calling the help line, a line notorious for being slow to answer calls.

I didn’t have to wait too long, and eventually got helped by someone who verified some details. About 25 minutes after the call, the line dropped and came back up, at the correct sync speed for our package. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very stable, with the internet light on the router often just dying. The DSL light also had a mind of it’s own. By now, frustration was growing worse. I had been told by the person who verified our line that we would need to have our ISP details changed for broadband, which led to more confusion when I made another phone call to get this changed. A helpful person tried to get our line going, but it just wouldn’t work. Eventually I thanked her and hung up, and decided to take a break.

A few hours later, with increasing pressure from my parents, I called the help line again, this time to report a fault. A nice gentleman deleted our config on his side, and we went through a number of steps, but the router still didn’t seem to want to work. At the end of the call, he said that we should take it in and have it checked out in the shop, as it may have been faulty. I left the device on, just to let it run over night. By this time we were all ready to just give up and go sleep.

Amazingly, just before we did, the adsl light along with the internet light lit up. Connection was there, and stable. I guessed that whatever the person at the helpdesk did, it may have taken some time to filter through to the port in the ADSL exchange. I entered our ISP details, and just like that I was off surfing. I sat there with a somewhat irritated feeling.

I had chosen to do self installation, as it saved time and a big amount of money. I have heard that some self installs go like this, others worse, others dead easy. Things have come a long way from the early days, but the self install process still seems a bit too technical for the average user. It’s too long winded and prone to causing breaks in the chain if you don’t follow everything exactly.

Using RAW files with a digital camera

Yesterday, I finally started using the option to save images on my Canon EOS350D in RAW format, instead of the more normal JPEG format. At first I thought it was simply to address a shortcoming in the dpi results, but I’ve since learned that this means next to nothing, and begun to realise that using RAW is not an immediate miracle maker, but rather it’s in the more subtle things.

I read somewhere a while ago that it’s best to use RAW, since you can tweak the file to your heart’s content afterwards, whereas with JPEG, you are much more limited. I also learnt that when shooting JPEG, your camera often has to make compromises to create a file in a decent amount of time, or otherwise it would be called slow. This rush to create the picture often leads to poor processing, as the processor in a camera is nowhere near as powerful as what is available in a modern computer.

If you are an amateur photographer, and are using a DSLR camera, switch to using RAW files for your snaps. It will require more storage space, but with flash media so cheap these days, it’s not the issue it once was. If your camera is 8 megapixels for example, the RAW file will be about 8Mb in size, give or take. Contrast this to a JPEG of about 1.3Mb taken at maximum fine setting.

I’m still very much an amateur, but it’s exciting to learn new things about your camera. Now if only I could get some more lenses 🙂

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