Joe’s Tips for achieving computer Zen

Recently Alex Payne wrote an article titled al3x’s Rules for Computing Happiness, and while we agree on a few things, there are several points that I most certainly do not agree with. As I was reading this article it got me to thinking about a page I had typed up at a previous job with some guidelines about how to not be frustrated with your computer at home. So in a slightly modified form I present to you Joe’s suggestions for achieving Computer Zen:

On choosing the correct OS for your needs:

  1. If you are only going to use your computer for email, web surfing, working with digital pictures, and to fill your iPod; buy a Mac. Just be prepared to spend more for less than you will get with the other options.
  2. If you rail against the man, refuse to pay for software, and want to be able to do anything that is possible with a computer; buy a computer without an OS and load the Linux distribution of your choice on it. Just be prepared to invest an amount of time reading man pages that could be considered the equivalent of earning a Doctorate in Computer Science to get your ultra-cool-high-tech-laser mouse working.
  3. If you want to be able to do most everything that you would need to (special circumstances aside), and do not want to have to learn how to program your computer to use it; buy a Windows computer. Just be prepared to buy some (optional) expensive software, and invest some time cleaning off malware from that late night “accidental” pr0n excursion.

On choosing software:

  1. Carefully evaluate software before you decide to use it. Take the time to set up a VM (that’s virtual machine) and install it there first. If you don’t want to go to the trouble, be prepared to suffer through some odd issues.
  2. Never install cracked software unless you are willing to reinstall your computer (sometimes “free” is not worth the price).
  3. Open source software has come a long way. Investigate your options before choosing to buy software.
  4. Never install iTunes on a Windows machine. There are other options for managing your iPod, and iTunes is a resource hog.

On general computer skills:

  1. Invest some time and really learn how to use and maintain your chosen OS and software. In the grand scheme of things you will save far more time doing it this way, than just going until something breaks and then having to try to figure it out (or having to pay someone to do it for you).
  2. Always back up your data (pictures, important documents, etc.) to something not on your computer. External hard drives are cheap now, as are web based backup solutions. Investigate your options, and choose a solution that is right for you. A good backup will save you hours of headache, and tons of heartache in the event of a data loss.
  3. Rip the Caps Lock key off of your keyboard. In all likelihood the only use you find for it will be to annoy others.

On using the internet:

  1. DO NOT CLICK EVERYTHING YOU SEE! No matter how many times I say this, I guess it takes personal experience to really drive it home. Assume that every popup you see is a trap, and investigate it fully before clicking on it at all. Common traps to avoid: “click here to install missing codec”, “your computer is infected with a virus click here to remove it”, “click here to enter”, (clicking on) “I agree…”.
  2. Do not use Internet Explorer unless the website does not work in anything else. FireFox is cross platform (will work on Windows, Linux, Mac), far safer, and in my opinion a better all around experience.
  3. Google is your friend. need to know how to start Outlook in Safe mode? Search “Start Outlook in Safe Mode” on Google.com, and you will find the answer very quickly.
  4. Do not forward rumor email or chain email! If someone sends you an email about business cards being laced with a potent tranquilizer, head over to snopes.com and check it out for yourself before you decide to tell anyone about it or send it to anyone. Some people just have too much time on their hands, and will mass email anything.
  5. Do not buy perscription meds online unless it is from a pharmacy your doctor recommends. Ask them about it FIRST. Anything that is advertised as “Buy \/i@gr4 herre cheap!!!” is a trap!

As with any Zen dicipline, Computer Zen is a long journey, and you will only get out of it that which you invest into it.

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Mysterious Server 2003 disk space consumption

So the System drive of my (primary) domain controller has been running low on disk space (it’s a 20GB partition running with about 4GB or so free). This has been a nagging issue that I’ve had off and on for a while now, and I haven’t really had the time to delve into it.

I decided to start my investigation by running WinDirStat and looking for any oddly large files. The largest portion of the System disk is consumed by the Program Files directory (no big surprise there), and aside from a couple slightly disturbing large files from my backup software there is only one group of large files on the drive – hovering in at about 12GB for the 8 or so files. And they all have the same path and are similarly named: C:\System Volume Information\{914b4760-84b2-11dd-bca9-000e0cb2b564}{3808876b-c176-4e28-b7ae-04046e6cc752}

Hmmm, interesting. A quick Google search turns up some results linking this directory (more specifically files with CSLID names in this directory) to two things: System Restore points, and virus files.

Well I’m pretty sure it’s not virus files (no other odd behavior or weird network activity), and if I’m not mistaken to enable System Restore on WS2003 you have to manually copy over some files from an XP CD (which is a pretty cool hack, but not something I’ve done on any corporate network I’ve ever worked on).

At this point I start hearing dramatic music in the back of my mind, I’ve got a bonafied mystery! Or at least initial facts would indicate so.

Well a bit more in depth investigation turns up what some of you already knew at this point, the culprit is VSS. But I never configured VSS! (queue swelling of dramatic music in the background)

Ok so this is something of a mystery after all. So I go digging around in the event logs for the last 3 years looking for the initial VSS snapshot message. It sounds like a lot of work, but Microsoft Log Parser actually makes things like this pretty trivial.

Turns out that the VSS snapshots started on the same day that I installed our current Backup software (Yosemite Backup 8.5 sp2) which cooincidentally has the ability to make use of VSS snapshots!

Now this is not a huge issue, as VSS will delete old snapshots when space is needed, however I tend to take exception to software doing things like this without my permission.

Well luckily for me, I used to be a manager at the company that makes our backup software, so I fire up my trusty IM client, and start poking at the engineering department.

Twenty minutes later I have my trusty pipe and smoking jacket firmly in place, as I am feeling quite like Sherlock Holmes. It seems that in fact it was the backup software which enabled VSS for all volumes on my server, and (because it uses the defaults when enabling VSS) had set VSS to not limit the space consumed by snapshots!

A simple trip into Disk Management, and a quick change to the drive’s Property page, and VSS is now limited to 4GB for the system partition (which is far more than I’ll ever need). Interestingly enough had I disabled the VSS service on this machine before installing the backup software, it would not have enabled VSS. I’ve asked that they include a note about VSS being automatically configured to the Yosemite Backup installer (it may exist now, I’m not sure as I haven’t actually read any of the installer screens in years), but who knows when that will make it into the software.

As a side note, I’ve spoken to the Tech Support Manager at Yosemite Technologies (they make Yosemite Backup), and they are currently writing a knowledge base article about this, and how to change the VSS settings from the defaults that Yosemite Backup enables.

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Of Licensing Agreements and such

Have you ever looked at a software EULA? It’s almost enough to make me want to puke, and I’m quite certain that most of the “clauses” in most of the software EULA’s out there are completely unenforceable (it’s like the people that write these things have never heard of the First Sale Doctrine).

Recently I’ve been forced to deal with Microsoft licensing, as well as licensing for several other major software packages, and I feel like I need to hire a lawyer to ensure that I am not violating the license agreements by looking at the software funny (don’t laugh – it is entirely possible that there is a clause in there somewhere that voids the license if I were to glare at the software).

I’ve had enough. While researching some of this stuff I came across a website that was apparently created by people that also are not too fond of the ridiculous direction that software licensing has taken of late, I give you Reasonable Agreement.

From this I’ve created a new email signature (I absolutely loathe the fact that I have to put a disclaimer on my work email – trust me they are totally and completely unenforceable anyway), for my personal email which reads like this:

Best regards,

Joe Glessner
__________________
READ CAREFULLY. By receiving this email you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies (”BOGUS AGREEMENTS”) that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges. You further represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer.




This site is more than just the anti-EULA, it is a collection of experiences of people dealing with these terrible license agreements in the real world. If you’re looking to waste some time and get a good laugh, there is some pretty funny stuff there.

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Network documentation and inventory made easy with free tools.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the words “network documentation” are like kryptonite for IT people. I’ve seen hardened SysAdmins cringe in fear at the mere mention of network documentation, and it always makes me shake my head and wonder why.

Network documentation is your friend. Unlike tech support for your backup software vendor (who universally seem to only be available 8-5 Monday to Friday), network documentation will be there to hold your hand at 3am after you’ve been trying to restore a downed server for 10 hours, and your $10,000 tape library has just gone up in flames like it was a Dell laptop battery (taking all of your current backup tapes with it).

Everyone seems to have this misconception that network documentation is this incredibly long and difficult process. I would put forth that it is neither. Let me show you just how easy some simple network documentation can be. All of the tools mentioned here are FREE (some may be ad supported, but as is the case with Spiceworks, for a small annual fee the ads can be disabled).

First we start with the Servers. These are likely the most valuable asset in your network, and should be treated as such. The first tool we will look at is the SYDI project.

SYDI is essentially a set of scripts (extensively for Windows, some Linux as well), which will gather TONS of information about the machine they are run on, and optionally create a nice Word document from that information (you must have Microsoft Word installed on the machine you run SYDI from for this feature to work).

SYDI was created by Patrick Ogenstad, and I have found it to be incredibly useful. I currently use SYDI to generate basic documentation for all of the servers on my network (currently all of my Linux servers are Gentoo, and I was able to get the Linux script for SYDI working on them with minimal effort). I have these scripts set to run on the first day of every month, and output the resulting files to a network share.

There is going to be some information (which you will definitely want) that SYDI does not gather. I’ve found that there are a great many tools that can help you get this data automatically, and rather than attempt to cover everything available, I am going to focus on the tools that I use.

I am a big fan of finding ways to do things with the Least Amount Of Administrative Effort (or LAOAE, often pronounced “lay-away”), so when available I like to use tools that can fit multiple needs. The next tool I am going to cover is Spiceworks Desktop, and it fills several of my needs.

Spiceworks is agentless, can be installed on either a server or a desktop machine, and can be accessed from any computer on the network using a web browser (don’t worry, it has extensive security capabilities, including Active Directory integration). One caveat for spiceworks is that you should not try to install it on a machine who’s name contains any “illegal” characters (-,!,?, etc. – this causes weird issues with device discovery). Spiceworks does many things, but the one we are really interested in here is inventory.

The inventory feature of Spiceworks will discover and attempt to identify every device on your network. Once discovery is complete you can view and categorize the devices it finds. The really useful feature for me is the ability to attach notes and files to the devices it finds. Also at this point you can fill in the information that SYDI omitted in your Server Documentation.

Among other things, I use Spiceworks as a repository for my network documentation and as an archive for system event logs. This provides a way for me to keep everyone in the IT department on the same page, and makes it really easy to keep a running changelog for every machine on our network.

No, how do we get those event logs? If you are running Windows machines, I have a script that I’ve written that I use to gather the event logs from my servers to a network share. The code for logArchive.vbs can be found here.

Now then, see how easy it is to generate basic network documentation?

Of course you will also want to eventually create a network map, an IT Service catalog, and… well let’s just say that you can follow this particular rabbit hole as far down as you’d like to go.

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