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Archive for April, 2009

Using Clonezilla multicast

Last week I finally had a chance to use Clonezilla and see how well the multicast facility works. It wasn’t planned to be used just yet, but due to a software mightmare in our second computer room, we were forced to do the machines over. So as is the norm, first thing to do is set up the template master computer, do it right, create an automatic answer file, run SYSPREP and then upload the image to the server. All of that went without a hitch.

We then physically moved the server to the second computer room, as we had to disconnect the room from the rest of the network due to Clonezilla using its own DHCP server. One we had hooked everything up and started booting clients, we discovered some interesting quirks. If left past the 7 second boot prompt, some of the clients would “freeeze” up and not load the system, while others went in ok. I’m not sure why this happened, it was odd. Nonetheless, after getting 33 out of the 37 pc’s ready, the image started itself. 4 computers couldn’t get connected in time, so they missed the initial clone. Speed wise Clonezilla seemed to work pretty well, we restored a +- 7GB image in about 8 minutes. There were slight pauses during the multicast, probably to let the clients catch up or something. I may have seen Ghost Corporate do the same before, but it was a while ago so I’m not too sure.

Once the clone was done, the machines rebooted themselves and proceeded to configure Windows according to the answer file we had left for Sysprep. We did a separate clone for the 4 computers who missed the first clone, and that too went ok, though one computer had a strange issue where it hung.

Overall as with any clone, most of the work is in the initial set up. Once that was done, things moved rather smoothly. While impressed by the speed of Clonezilla, I’m still a bit concerned about it’s overall stability. Also, it’s a bit more disruptive that Ghost Corp, which worked with a pre-existing DHCP server on your network. That way I could clone systems without needing to disconnect other parts of the network. However, Clonezilla has the edge in that it’s free and supports many more filesystems than Ghost does (or did, I haven’t used later versions of Ghost.) Clonezilla itself is part of the DRBL environment, which is useful if you want to boot and run Linux distros off the network. In many ways it’s similar to a thin client setup.

In closing, if you are in a school, community project or even small business and don’t want to stomach the high license costs of Ghost Corp, take some time to evaluate Clonezilla Server Edition. It may just do the trick for you if you can live with some of it’s complexities during setup and use.

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Using Web 2.0 tools

Web 2.0 has been the buzzword on the internet now for a few years. Not exactly straight forward to describe, it has nonetheless changed how we use the internet. Rich content, user generated content and other technologies that have made things far more interesting and flashy, though whether it has more substance is up for debate.

I have been using the world wide web since roughly 1997. Back then, Netscape Navigator ruled the world, dial up was state of the art, and static web pages, sometimes designed in MS Word was a common trend. Since those early days, I’ve grown with the web. I’ve used different browsers, seen operating systems rise up, and how technology has exploded in about 10 years. Being such an old timer, I never bothered much with the emergence of Web 2.0, I had other things that interested me.

However, in the last 6 months I’ve started to appreciate how some factors of Web 2.0 have improved my browsing experience. RSS feeds have shown me how to keep in touch with some of my favourite sites without needing to visit them everytime. Without knowing it, by writing this blog I was already taking part in a major part of Web 2.0. I used YouTube recently to watch some clips of the standout suprises of a tv show. I’ve also started using Joomla to build a new website for my new job, something that I could never have done the static way. Some aspects of Web 2.0 will not be available to me down here in South Africa, due to the limited bandwidth situation. That rules out a lot of things, but still, for what I’ve used so far I’ve enjoyed.

There is the dark side of Web 2.0 that not many people think of: security. With all the AJAX code, Flash videos and other things that make up the experience, there will be an increase in problems in times to come. Flash in particular has come under a lot of pressure with many new exploits popping up over the last few years. As always, it is best to keep up to date with patches, virus definitions and OS patches.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the web evolves from here. I wonder if clean and simple layouts will beat the highly dense and confusing layouts of some sites now.

Operating system zealots

A while ago I was browsing my usual forums, reading a thread that was about the all too common Linux vs Windows debate. One person posted a link to a blog which I read, which was pretty much a full out attack on Windows users. The blog post had been brought about by the recent upsurge of the Conficker worm.

The person who wrote that blog was basically bashing every single Windows user, and was proudly promoting Linux as the answer. This is nothing unique, having grown up more or less in the internet culture, I’ve been witness to these debates plenty of times. I had a friend once who also went on about this, proclaiming “Windows sux, it’s so unstable, <insert usual diatribe here>. He said that he would run Linux on his home system, he’d be so secure and safe. I lost contact with him for many years, but when I did briefly get back in touch with him, he was running Windows XP still. When I asked why, it was because his games and web design tools wouldn’t work under Linux, so he got tired of the frustration. Instead he switched his anger towards something else.

Civilized debate is fun and can be enlightening, provided the other party has strong backup information that you can follow up on if you find yourself swayed by their opinion. However, proudly proclaiming on an internet forum that “Vista is an epic fail” and the only evidence is your word and experience, then that makes me class that as a fail.

The OS debate has been going on ever since there was an OS, but in today’s world, amatuer users can make a lot of noise on blogs and over the internet. Many of them raged about Vista after it was released, and did the same thing in real life to fellow friends and family, which in turn put some of those people off, since their “IT friend/family member says Vista sucks” They didn’t even try the OS out, yet they’ve already written it off. Yes, Vista had and still does have issues, but it’s a huge step forward for Microsoft in numerous ways, amongst them much better security.

As for the Linux side of things, it normally tends to turn out into an all out flame war. Or the users hi-jack threads that had nothing to do with them, such as answering a plea for help by saying that installing Ubuntu will solve everything. Not exactly the attitude that welcomes you into the community. Now here’s the thing. I like Linux, and have used it to a certain depth in the past, and without a doubt it makes a great server and desktop platform. However, I don’t see it taking over the desktop, it’s had a good 10 years to do so and hasn’t yet. Every year that has been proclaimed to be the year of the Linux desktop has failed to win more than a few bits of a percentage point towards total adoption.

My view is really that people should use whatever OS they find comfortable, easy and gets their specific job done. Spreading the word is also fine, so long as it’s done in a mature way. The internet really needs far less trolling, and more constructive methods of doing things. Each OS out there has its own strengths and weaknesses, while some are designed for very specific types of jobs. Being a fan of your OS is fine, but if you are going to debate, please do so maturely and with facts. Not heresay, not random diatribes, back it up with proof please.

Politics, voting and my random thoughts

I voted today.

That simple statement in 3 words sums up an incredible experience for myself, and no doubt for many first time South African voters as well. The whole history of our country and its struggle to freedom is not something I’m going to repeat here, but I will say that I am greatful to those who have gone before so that I may have this right.

I was able to vote in the last general elections our country had, back in 2004, but due to my own apathy I chose not to. Since then, South African politics has gone through a radical transformation, one that made me realise that I need to cast my ballot in order to make my voice heard. After watching Barack Obama spread his message of hope and change, I felt some of that energy fill me, and I knew that I had to vote. Although the party I voted for will not win the national election, I believe that they can win the province I am in, the Western Cape.

South Africa is ruled by the Afican National Congress, and has been ruled by them since 1994. They will win this election, though with not quite the same strength as before. Starting off with the incomparable Nelson Mandela, we have slowly seen the country stabilise but in many ways also stagnate. Poor choices for ministers were made, scandals and corruption became daily news items, racism kept rearing its ugly head, the list goes on. Above all else, the one defining factor is this: Jacob Zuma happened.

Jacob Zuma has divided this country like never before, yet at the same time has awoken people from their apathy, almost by accident. Enough so that a new political party was formed, a party called COPE or Congress of the People. COPE rocked the ruling ANC in a highly visible way, and noticing this, other opposition parties started waking up. Tired of corruption, cronyism and more, ordinary people realised that their voice meant something. Longing for positive change, millions turned out to register to vote including many young people. After seeing the way the ruling president Thabo Mbeki was “recalled”, the death of the Scorpions anti-crime unit, and the dropping of charges against Zuma, people got the chance to make their voice heard today. In a day or so, we’ll know the results of the vote.

I will continue to cast my vote in future elections, and will attempt to persuade eveyone I know to do so as well. It is our right, earned in blood by those who went before. While we may not vote for the party(s) they belonged to, we honour them by voting. Long live democracy.

Working with Joomla

April 5, 2009 1 comment

My next big thing I need to tackle is the open source content management system Joomla. My new job has required me to do some web design and maintenance, which has been challenging. I was never very keen on learning HTML and other web technologies, as my passion was always hardware and networking. The only time I ever did anything majow was when I was in grade 12 and I had to design a website as part of my computer studies project. I used Microsoft Frontpage back then, and although I no longer have a copy of that site, I can recall that it was pretty horrible. What I thought made a good site was just plain wrong. I had tried to use Dreamweaver 3/4 to build the site, but I was instantly lost, I couldn’t work out what to do.

Since then I haven’t bothered, but since learning Dreamweaver slightly and using it to maintain my new job’s website, I’ve begun to realise just how powerful, but un-user friendly Dreamweaver is. I’m still using the old MX2004 version, but apart from the very basics, I am lost in its interface. The tables and formatting of text really irritates me when it doesn’t work, often requiring lots of manually hacking the source code to bring it back into line. This costs me time, and delays updates sometimes.

It was said to me that I would need to learn how to use Joomla as the school wanted to migrate to that. After things settled down a bit at the job, I’ve managed to play around a bit with the software, and to realise that it is very powerful, yet potentially simple enough for people to use. Getting it set up has proved to my main nightmare, as setting it up to run under Windows Server is not simple. After lots of struggling I got my first test site running, but then I had to leave it due to time. Later I tried again, and my install didn’t work. This led to plenty of searching on their forums as well through seearch engines. Eventually I came across a rather helpful tutorial on the IIS.net website.  

I haven’t palyed much with it since then, too many other things need my attention. However, the host where we will eventually upload Joomla to is running FreeBSD as the OS, with Apache as the web server. Still, once it’s installed, Joomla pretty much behaves the same no matter what platform it’s on. That is why I’m not going to try and emulate the environment 100%, it’s not worth it right now.

I’ve visited a number of school websites as part of my research, and I’ve seen a wide variety of things. Some sites are really great, others eye jarring. One site I saw really impressed me though and sort of gave me the idea of what I’d like to see the eventual new site look like. Take a look here and I’m sure you’ll agree that the Pope John school got it right.  I guess not many schools have the budget to have a really decent site done, yet it is probably the first thing people will look for when doing research. Done right, the website can become your first tool to impress potential parents and learners.

Hopefully I will get more time soon to fully learn this powerful piece of software. I’m excited to delve into it, and a whole world of plug-ins and extensions await me too.

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Getting a Clonezilla server running

April 5, 2009 2 comments

In one of my previous posts here, I spoke of the open source cloning software Clonezilla, used on a single computer. I also mentioned that I was planning to get the server edition up and running so that I could use it to replace the aging Ghost 8 Coporate Edition I’ve become used to.

I got hold of a copy of OpenSUSE 11.1 and used that as my test platform, though I did have the older 10.2 around as well. To get the Clonezilla server running, it turns out that you actually need to get a DRBL server up first. DRBL stands for Diskeless Remote Boot in Linux and basically acts as a kind of thin client server. This confused me quite a bit, as I expected the Clonezilla server to be a package on it’s own and not to be part of something else, but it makes sense in a way.

I got the DRBL rpm file, installed it, and then got a bit lost. It took me a long time to properly read and understand the instructions provided online, and even then, things didn’t go all that well, perhaps due to my impatience. Using the default online method didn’t work in OpenSUSE for me, although it worked fine in Debian 5 for my colleague at work. Eventually I learnt how to use the “offline” installation mode of the package, which got me further. At this point I thought I was done, but in fact I was far from it.

Again, by not reading instructions carefully, I missed the step where I needed to rush a step called drblpush. This would actually configure the whole environment. Eventually I did this whole procedure, and finished it. Then as instructed, I tried to boot a computer via its LAN card, only to constantly fail with TFTP timing out. That sent me on a wild goose chase editing hosts.allow and hosts.deny files, which actually wasn’t the problem. My colleague continued with his Debian attempt, and to my frustration, got it working after following the steps. I kept digging and digging, doing multiple installs. By some twist of fate, I eventually got the system up and running, and I think it was the firewall in OpenSUSE that was the problem. It could also have been 1 missing package called netdiag, but I’m not sure. Having got the environment up at home, I wanted to replicate it at work, but I couldn’t. Guess my install there was to botched up from all my experiments.

In short, I’ve finally gotten the software to run on OpenSUSE, but it is a challenge. Once it is up and running though, it appears to work well and like it should. I’ve not used the multicast mode, as I don’t have multiple machines to restore yet, but it feels quite similar to Ghost, if not as user friendly. I think this system has loads of potential, but that it needs to be simplified, especially for non Linux people to get going, as well as to be split from the DRBL system. There’s no reason it can’t fully replace Ghost as the multicast king, apart from the unfriendly nature of the installation and prompts that are pretty much ncurses text based.

Here are some images of the system running on my older OpenSUSE 10.2 test system.

Moving to Vista as my primary operating system

April 4, 2009 1 comment

When I originally built my computer, I chose to put 2 operating systems on it, on seperate hard drives: Windows XP Professional, and Windows Vista x64 Ultimate.  The idea behind this was to stick with what I knew best in XP, but at the same time to learn Vista. Also, for my gaming needs I kept with XP, due to fears about the audio system in Vista and Creative Lab’s drivers fiasco. I booted into Vista now and then, played around a bit, then went back to XP.

After SP1 for Vista came out, I applied it, and began to spend more time in the system. When Unreal Tournament 3 kept crashing under XP, I tried it under Vista, and to my suprise it ran better. I later learnt that it was more of an issue with UT3, but I was left impressed. While I didn’t pound the system with daily use, whenever I did go in, Vista booted faster than XP, and always felt more responsive, especially after the indexing of the hard drive was done. I hardly noticed that part I have to admit.

When I needed to use virtual machines for some software studies, I initially used XP, but got fed up pretty quick. XP can’t use all of my 4GB of ram, which could have been at least 1 extra virtual machine. Added to the fact that I couldn’t install 64 bit OS with the tools I was using, and my mind was made up. I moved into Vista and did my tests there. Despite being put under enormous strain with that, it always remained stable and responsive. It was at that time that I began to have ideas of maybe moving over to Vista as my primary OS.

Time prevented me from doing so, but in the last 2 weeks I finally made the plunge. Almost every piece of software I need and use has worked right out the box, with only one major exception. I moved my mail in Outlook over, along with all my documents and music etc. All my hardware is supported bar my Canon EOS350D camera, but I can live with that by using some other method to retreive my photos off the memory card.

One interesting thing I’ve found is that software written for Vista runs very well. Older 32bit software also works well, and if they were properly coded, they don’t raise the “dreaded” UAC prompt. I am a network administrator, so by definition a power user, but I left UAC on, where most people have turned it off. Initially it was a pain, but now it rarely pops up. When it does, it gets my attention and makes me think on what it’s asking for. That alone goes a long way to stop stupid software installing silently in the background, or malware from sneaking in. While it’s not a perfect security blanket, I think it actually makes a lot of sense.

In the past, every Windows account was basically an administrator, which unfortunatley left the door wide open to all sorts of problems. UAC in Vista tightens this down, so that even if you are an admin user, you must still approve certain things. One Microsoft employee stated in an interview that UAC was meant to bug people by design, and it was actually a way to get big software companies to finally pull their code in order. For many years, Microsoft has been begging coders to write code that fit into its best practice security model, but most of them didn’t bother. This again helped grow that cycle of needing admin rights, and left the door open for malware and other bugs. Now, if code isn’t well designed, it triggers UAC, which in turn forces coders to finally step into line.

Getting back on topic, I’ve been running Vista now almost fully for 2 weeks, and I’m happy. I’ll keep my XP drive around still due to some games installed on there that use EAX for sound effects, as well as the whole Steam platform which was a huge mission to get going. People have spoken of Windows 7 as the be all and end all, but I’m happy with Vista. I haven’t really bothered to test Windows 7 out, and I’m probably one of the few that won’t jump ship to it when it comes out. Vista got a bad knock from bloggers and others when it came out, which really caused a ripple effect. People who never used Vista hated it, and were going on about XP as if it was the best ever. It was an almost carbon copy reaction to that of when XP overtook Windows 98, but this time it was far bigger. It really was unfair, as Vista is actually quite a superb system. While I think it was way too confusing with the number of editions, the product itself is solid.

If anyone out there reads this and has feelings over the subject for or against Vista, please feel free to leave it in the comments to this post. I like to hear what others have to say.