Archive for July, 2011

Going for VoIP

One of the cost cutting ideas my colleague and I had is to replace our school’s rather old PABX system with a new system that uses VoIP. By using such a system, we can save the school thousands of rands each month due to cutting away the cellular phone least cost routing devices, as well as sending voice traffic over the internet and not out over the expensive Telkom land lines.

We’ve been suggesting to management to look into such a solution for months now, but now the wheels are finally starting to move, with my colleague and I being placed in the position of doing the initial research and contacting companies. After getting our photocopiers replaced with better devices that are saving the school money and time, this is our next big project. Over the last 2 days, we’ve seen sales people from 5 different companies, with 2 more tomorrow. We’ve quizzed each person, shown them our existing infrastructure and heard lots of promises, as well as excuses in some cases. Our first salesman spent about half his time on a VoIP solution before trying to sell us data projectors and yet more copiers. Suffice to say, I was not impressed by that, as it has been made clear to the guy that we were not interested in anything else except a VoIP system.

Neither my colleague or I are too terribly clued up about large VoIP systems, though I do have quite a bit of experience with an Alcatel PABX system from my previous job. That being said, we have done our homework and have been asking a lot of pointed questions. I think the next step is to try and find a school somewhere around us that has gone down the VoIP route themselves, to see what their experiences have been. Using Skype doesn’t count however, which is more than likely the product most schools are familiar with.

One of the companies coming to see us tomorrow base their product on the open source Asterisk product, which should be interesting. I’ve seen a lot of praise for Asterisk, but I’ve never played around with it. Still, I think it will be pretty interesting to see what products the company has on offer.

All in all, I’m quite excited about this project. Although the spade work is tiresome, it will be rewarding to have a new system go in place that meets our needs and helps reduce costs. Perhaps we can even get to the point where we can trace which staff spend hours on the phone, and then help them cut down a bit.

After hours tech support nightmare

This week, I was asked to look at somebody’s computer as a personal favour to my dad. I don’t often do tech support work after hours anymore, as the problems that need to be fixed are often complex, bothersome and are more effort than the worth of the computer. However, as this was a personal favour, I said yes.

I always like to have background information on a computer before touching it, as sometimes knowing this is enough to fix a problem without touching the machine. In this case, all I got told is that the computer was working, but after a series of 3 rapid power failures, it now refused to start Windows and was saying something about a non system disk. My first reaction was to suggest that any flash drives, floppy disks or CD’s in the computer be removed, as this is often the reason for that type of message. Said person replied that there were none of those in the computer.

After I received possession of the computer, I started it up to see the message myself. After verifying that the hard drive was plugged in, set as master and so forth, I then knew that it was most likely damage to the file system on the hard drive. My recovery cd’s I had on hand couldn’t mount the drive, which was always a worrying sign. Using the XP Recovery Console, I was told that the drive was blank. This was not what I wanted to see, so I decided to hook the drive up into our old family computer and run the usual CHKDSK. CHKDSK refused, stating that the drive was in RAW format. At this point, I was willing just to give up and walk away. When a NTFS drive suddenly appears as RAW, it means the file system is badly screwed up. Data is usually still on the drive, but depending on how badly the FS is busted, that data may only be recoverable by professionals.

Today I decided to take one last shot at the thing, after remembering a piece of software called TestDisk. It’s an open source program that does data recovery from many file systems. Running the program, it told me that the boot sector was bad. I told it to fix that, after which I tried to get a listing of files so I could back them up. That didn’t work, as it now told me that the Master File Table was screwed. Taking a chance, I ran CHKDSK again, and lo and behold, this time it ran. Took quite a while, but it seemed to fix all of the file system damage. I tried to boot the broken computer with the newly fixed hard drive, to no avail. I inserted the XP CD again and ran FixBoot from the Recovery Console. I was going to run FixMBR, but didn’t want to damage anything further before backing up the files.

Going back to our old family computer, CHKDSK ran at start-up, repairing yet more damage to the FS. I ran it again afterwards, just to make sure, at which time it came up clean. Going back to the broken computer, I was now able to start it up and get into Windows. Unfortunately, the computer has a mix of AVG 2011 anti-virus and HP bloated printer software on it, which makes it crawl like syrup. The next time I restarted the box, the start menu had vanished, the RPC Server service refuses to start and more. I can’t even check the system logs, as without the RPC service running, the Event Viewer won’t open the logs. I’ve now thrown in the towel for good, and will be suggesting that the person buy a new computer. I’ve got their documents, which I can easily give back on a flash drive/DVD.

I’ve come to a conclusion about doing free tech support in my spare time: it just isn’t worth it. When you work on a 7-8 year old Socket 478 Celeron with a 20GB hard drive and 1GB RAM, you appreciate how far things have come in the last 2 or so years. As I’ve said to my dad, a computer is not like a car. While both are expensive, a car will give you anything from 10-30 years service if it’s looked after. A computer will give you perhaps 5 if you are extremely lucky before it becomes so old and obsolete that you end up spending more money to keep it running than buying a new computer. As sad as it is, that is the relentless march of progress in technology.

FOG 0.31, BIOS updates and other fun

Version 0.31 of the free FOG computer cloning software came out about 2-3 weeks ago. The major benefit of this version is that the web GUI has been revamped to be lighter and faster, compared to the previous GUI which has been around for ages. With holidays upon us, my colleague and I backed up the images we had made previously and nuked our existing server. A fresh copy of Ubuntu 11.04 Server was installed, FOG installed and images copied back over.

The installation went smoothly and the new GUI is much faster than the old one. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s much more pleasant to work with. There are many areas that could be improved on, but that will probably only be possible with a total rethink and rewrite of the GUI.

Performance when cloning down to a machine isn’t great unfortunately, probably due to the fact that we are running it on XenServer. Ubuntu 11.04 is not an officially supported distro, and trying to get the optimised drivers for Xen working is beyond our skills. As such, speeds are about half they were when FOG was running on a dedicated server, which in reality was simply a repurposed desktop computer. We’ve yet to test multicast as well, which is the real deal breaker for us. If we can get that working properly again, I’ll be relieved.

As a side effect, I set out to reregister every computer I could back into the FOG database. When I tried to register 3 of the computers based on Intel DP55WG motherboards in our staff work room, I picked up some issues with the computers. They loaded the kernel extremely slowly and refused to register. This was very odd, as these machines had registered with FOG a few versions back, and were in fact cloned from FOG. Taking a chance, I went to Intel’s website to see if there was an updated BIOS available. Luckily there was, and we proceeded to flash the 3 troublesome computers. After the procedure, not only did the computers register with FOG, the whole booting up sequence was much faster as well. That was a nice bonus.

Of all the devices I’ve flashed, I would say that Intel’s flashing method is the nicest. Provided you have a relatively recent board, the procedure is as simple as running the file in Windows. It reboots, flashes the BIOS and reboots back into Windows. Simple, straightforward and near painless. Other motherboards I’ve worked with required a floppy disk (!) or the file on a memory stick. Others have flashing programs that are very fickle under Windows. 

Now that I’m off for a week, I can hopefully get around to writing some posts that have been in the back of my head for a while now. Thank goodness for holidays!