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Posts Tagged ‘Microsoft’

Minor Vista Bug

April 21, 2008 2 comments

Has anyone else noticed this strange GUI bug? When you goto the Notification Area property page you are met with the following screen.

Now if you opt to not show the network icon, this happens:

For some reason, the power icon is also removed even if it is checked. If you actually apply this, only the network icon is actually removed, its just strange Microsoft have not found and fixed this yet given it is a trivial GUI issue.

Categories: Microsoft, Random, Windows Tags: , , , ,

Hidden World of Linux: Follow up Part 1 – NAS

April 10, 2008 4 comments

Since my previous post on the hidden uses of Linux attracted so much attention, I thought I would do a brief follow up adding a bit more to my conclusion in which I discussed the main drawback to all these great Linux distributions – power consumption. At some point I am going to buy a power meter and test a variety of old computers I have around the house to see how much power they draw, but for now I just want to give some illustrated examples of low power hardware that can be bought which are ideal for some of the uses described in my prior post.

This is the first of two follow up posts. This way I can go into detail about each specific section. In this post I will be discussing NAS (Network Attached Storage) and will follow up shortly with a post on Firewalls later.

Realistically retail NAS devices fall into two categories, ones with a single harddrive and ones with multiple harddrives.

Single hard drive setups

There are a large variety of single harddrive NAS systems available at fairly reasonable prices and, unless you need a specific feature that a Linux/BSD distribution like FreeNAS provides, it will likely be better to purchase a separate NAS drive. This way you do not need to worry about installation / upgrading potentially buggy software and the power requirement will be in the tens of Watts.

For the sake of argument, let us consider three hardware examples for building (or reusing an old computer for) a single drive NAS. The first is by far the cheapest – reusing your old PC. All that is really required is a new harddrive to replace the small one the PC would originally have been shipped with.

At an average price of £35 for a 250Gb SATA drive (slightly less for an IDE version,) simply reusing an old PC is by far the cheapest option, however there are a number of things to watch out for. Old computers used to have limitations as to the maximum hard drive capacity the BIOS on the motherboard would be able to address. Back in the days of single GB hard drives, a then theoretical limit of 137Gb must have seemed as far off as 32Gb RAM for desktops does today. Fast forward back to today; whilst modern systems are very happily addressing far more than 137Gb thanks to logical block (LBA) 48bit addressing, chances are you will want at least around 160Gb space for your NAS meaning this could be a problem for some of the really old hardware. The reason for this so called “ATA Interface Limit” issue (which is by no means the first in computing – check out this great article) is a mathematical limitation in the way in which harddrives used to be accessed at a very low level using discrete geometry (cylinder, head and sector numbers.) BIOS patches are available although these are few and far between.

Worn power supplies are also a potential hazard, check before deploying a system for 12/24 hour use that the power supply cooling fan is in good condition and that there are no overheating issues caused by an old or clogged cooling system in the rest of the hardware. Please do not open up a power supply – such an action could be dangerous if you do not know what you are doing. When in doubt, replace it – it will be cheaper in the long run than if you end up setting fire to your house or destroying your data through a power spike induced head crash. In summary, this option is by far the cheapest of the three, but there can be some problems along the way.

The second option I explored, would be to buy a complete, custom tailored PC system for use as a headless NAS. I went to one of the eshops I frequently purchase from and quickly, virtually built a low powered, cheap PC that would be suitable for such a purchase. Surprisingly, it turns out that building your own NAS box is a lot less expensive than I would have thought with my NAS PC costing a total of £108 (Full specification and links in appendix at the end of this post) inclusive of the £35 250Gb harddrive used in the previous example. This compares very favourably with the (currently) cheapest single HDD NAS box available from the same eshop which is £77. With your own PC, you get the advantage of customising the services your NAS provides giving you greater control coupled with expandability down the road, an option unavailable when buying a retail NAS. The downside to this is the increased power consumption. To mitigate this, I picked recent components which have power saving features like AMD’s Cool and Quiet as well as the special, low power consumption versions rather than going for a generation (or two) old technology which was roughly the same price anyway.

The final ‘self-built’ NAS hardware option I wanted to explore is building a NAS with ultralow power embedded components frequently used in routers / modems and in actual NAS systems. It is possible to buy a limited selection of embedded motherboards, some even with low power processors like the VIA C7 or AMD Geode. VIA C7 processor boards seem to be a lot cheaper, and I selected a board which had everything minus RAM, the HDD (hard disk) and a power supply. Unfortunately, due to the limited production scales of some of these ITX boards (you pay a premium for the miniaturisation) the cost of building such a low power device was higher than I anticipated. The total price for a small, very low power embedded NAS build was £143 (full specification in appendix at the end of post) also inclusive of 250 Gb hard disk drive.

As you can see, the cheapest option, (predictably) would be to reuse old hardware assuming it is only two or three generations old. In all three PC specifications, I have kept the harddrive size and cost the same in order to allow for a greater comparison, but I find it hard to recommend either self build option even given the extra flexibility that such a computer would yield running a BSD distribution like FreeNAS. Also, although FreeNAS is a fairly mature product, there is no guarantee that it will work flawlessly with the hardware you have (I had some ACPI issues with my test machine) which would render potential effort useless. If you have an old PC and hard drives lying around then you have nothing to loose by trying FreeNAS, I would even encourage it, otherwise I must stick to my original comment – if you are only want a NAS for casual backup on a single drive, buy an off the shelf product.

Multiple hard drive setups

If on the other hand you want more than a single HDD, this is where things start to get interesting, there are very few (reasonably) priced multi disk NAS systems on the market. The key exception is a piece of hardware I alluded to in my previous post which I would like to talk briefly now about. (I am sure other options exist, but this is the only reasonably priced one currently available in the UK market.)

The enclosure I found which would allow two drives to be used is made by Nanopoint and is model ‘Icy Box IB-NAS4220-B.’ It has an interesting feature set, supporting 2 SATA harddrives with Samba, NFS, FTP, RAID 1 & 0 as well as a USB to act as a print server. Unfortunately it is twice the price here in the UK than in the US but it seems to be one of the very few NAS enclosures that allows for RAID 1 across two harddrives. This was important as I am after a system that has built in redundancy – if one hard disk failed – another automatically had a copy of all the files. (Although the theory behind RAID is somewhat flawed – more on this another time.) I am seriously tempted to buy one of these and if I do I will write a full review with how it compares to FreeNAS at a later stage. UPDATE: I have found another similar device by Netgear (SC101 SAN/NAS device) although it only supports IDE drives, the other features seem roughly the same.

This is the point where FreeNAS starts to really distinguish itself from some of the commercial offerings. The reason is simple, anything more than one or two hard drives is seen as either SOHO (Small Office / Home Office) or Corporate grade and has an appropriate price tag and feature set. FreeNAS can, and will scale beautifully with a number of hard drives (even performing fault tolerant RAID 5 as well as the more popular RAID 1) although at the moment, it does not support clustering or failovers. This is relatively trivial as we are getting now into the realms of enterprise grade computing.

Due to the relatively simple firmware required to get these devices working (even with a variety of services) it will likely be cheaper over the course of a year to skip distributions like FreeNAS or OpenFiler and instead opt for a NAS drive enclosure, unless you specifically need some of the features FreeNAS offers or you are using several hard disks.

Related Idea : Virtualisation

Thumos made an interesting point in one of my posts about using a server running multiple virtual environments which each role (e.g. firewall, NAS / SAN, MythTV etc) all running on one PC. The downside of this would be, as he noted, dramatically increased hardware requirements and to be honest, I am not confident such a system would be able to handle all those roles effectively but I am not an expert on Virtualisation. Windows Server 2008 can do some pretty amazing things in this respect with their hypervisor based virtualisation system.

Related Idea: Windows Home Server

Although strictly speaking Windows Home Server is a completely different program (and incompatible with freedom (or F/OSS) software philosophies) it deserves a mention given the subject of this post. Built on a modified Windows Server 2003 r2 core, Windows Home Server adds automated backup as well as some impressive disk management tools. Perhaps the most striking to me was the absence of RAID as we classically see it. RAID has become ubiquitous for redundant, performance or server/enterprise grade storage solutions mostly because the only practical alternative is confined to high end data centers. Ask an IT expert or geek the various modes to connect multiple hard disks and invariably you will get a discussion involving RAID 0,1,5 (or mixed modes like 0+1, 5+0, 5+1, 6, 8 etc) and JBOD spanning with likely no mention of DFS or FRS. These are Microsoft technologies developed “in-house” by their Advanced Technologies Lab (ATL).

To understand DFS and its routes, I had to take a brief crash course in enterprise level computing as the technology was not initially developed for use in Windows Home Server finding its routes a few years before, however the similarly between DFS and the storage technology in WHS is very similar as Paul Thurrott notes in an early preview of WHS. Infact, DFS started life a as a way to transparently link various SMB (Samba) Shares in a way in which there would be greater flexibility, transparency and reliability in corporate environments with multiple data centers. DFS generally can be used in one of two ‘modes’, the first being locally administered (without an Active Directory) and the second being domain based roots which by their design provides redundancy and is the most commonly used. There is an excellent demo of this technology on the Microsoft website.

The key to software implementation of data redundancy in Windows Home Server is found in the transparent way storage shares are presented to the end user, not through a network mapped drive letter or a (classic) network share. Infact, WHS automatically shadow copies data in such a way that a copy of it exists on more than one hardware device protecting against failure. This is completely different from RAID 0 which directly mirrors the contents of an entire drive (byte for byte) onto another one to provide redundancy. In the event of a hard disk failure (or capacity upgrade) the RAID array must be taken offline and rebuilt with a replacement disk. Furthermore, because the data is mirrored from one hard drive to another, the maximum size of the mirrored array is constrained to the smallest drive in the array. Windows Home Server supports hot swapping of disks, meaning that if a hard disk fails there (likely) is no data loss nor interruption in service. If an extra drive is added (e.g. via USB) or an existing drive is hotswapped it expands the overall space available to encompass the new storage and automatically (shadow) copies the data on it’s existing drive(s) to (re)create redundancy.

The hardware requirements are significantly higher than just running FreeNAS, a minimum of a 1Ghz processor and 512Mb of RAM are required before the installation will continue making it twice (or 3/4 times) more resource hungry than F/OSS equivalents. The ability to access your data remotely (through Windows Live integration) is interesting as it acts like a RAS dynDNS service, but it means trusting a third party for your authentication. A properly configured local network with secure FTP or Samba services would provide exactly the same (if less flashy) functionality with the advantage of giving you complete control over who, what and where your network can be accessed from.

Conclusion

There are features that FreeNAS provides which ‘off-the-shelf’ NAS enclosures will not and for this it is an extremely good piece of software. For multiple harddrives and / or multiple users all requiring different services, I would recommend FreeNAS everytime possibly even with some of the ITX hardware (coupled with a PCI RAID card) suggested above, however for someone wishing to make a single HDD into a NAS for occational home use it is unlikely to be a smart choice.

Appendix : Example hardware costs

Please note, these are example prices correct at time of research, please do not go and take this as a recommendation of a system specification, it is for illustration only.

First example : Equipment already in your home.

Existing hardware eliminates a lot of initial outlay.

Harddrive: £35 (Seagate 250Gb SATA HDD) – Although I am not a fan of Seagate, there are better drives available.

Total Cost: £35

Second example: Building a very basic / cheap PC

Processor: £19 (AMD Low Power (45 W) AM2 Sempron)

Motherboard: £27 (MSI Motherboard)

RAM: £7 (512Mb Extra Value PC2-5400 RAM)

Harddrive: £35 (Seagate 250Gb SATA HDD) – Although I am not a fan of Seagate, there are better drives available.

Power Supply: £10 (Budget 350Watt) – Although I would STRONGLY recommend never buying a budget PSU.

Case: £10 (Budget ATX case)

Total Cost: £108


Third example: Building a low power ‘ITX’ form factor PC

Motherboard & Processor: £50 (Via iDOT) – Very cheap low power board

RAM: £7 (512Mb Extra Value PC2-5400 RAM)

Harddrive: £35 (Seagate 250Gb SATA HDD) – Although I am not a fan of Seagate, there are better drives available.

Case & Power Supply: £42 (Simple small case)

Total Cost: £143

Vista Bashing = Cheap Traffic!?

April 5, 2008 12 comments

It seems the web (and certainly the blogosphere) is full of posts damning Vista for various reasons and I do not believe all this harsh criticism is justified. It all came to a head when I read a particular blog entry tonight. I started writing a brief reply in order to express my feelings on the matter, but it turned into a semi-lengthy rant which I would like to reproduce in a somewhat tweaked / editing form here.

What worries me is that it is very fashionable to bash Vista. It feels like any self proclaimed Tech expert thinks it is almost their prerogative to write long anti-Vista articles based on and citing other anti-Vista articles – does anyone else see a pattern emerging here?!

For the record I should say I am a huge fan of Linux, I run more Linux boxes than Windows, but of those windows boxes, the majority are XP and only one is Vista. I am very happy with Vista as well as XP but it is about managing your expectations. It is completely unrealistic to assume Vista will run on hardware that is a couple of years old (or even some budget machines.)

Surprise surprise, it won’t, Vista has been plagued by hardware and software incompatibilities – what does this tell us? Simply that Microsoft was not lying when it said Vista is a major update to the Windows platform. Historically all major updates have had driver and software compatibility issues (anyone remember XP 5/6 years ago?!?) Drivers are the responsibility of the manufacturer NOT Microsoft, for years prior to release Microsoft were talking to hardware companies, asking them to update their drivers but most ignored them. Why!?? Very simply because they will sell more hardware if people have to go out and buy Vista certified equipment. It is not in their interest to revisit hardware they released 2 years ago – it does not make them any more money and the consumer be damned.

Saying that, there are a number of platforms / situations when Vista is clearly not suitable and for those I still run XP – it is more responsive on such hardware and has the added bonus of comfort factor (i.e. I have been using it for years and I am very familiar with it,) but lets not forget, this is old technology that has not really been worked on since 2005 (sp2.) SP3 is nothing more than a security roll up with a few extra Vista developed features added. The desktop rendering in XP (called GDI+) is based on a software stack that is several years old and incapable of hardware accelerated desktop compositing – the same thing Mac OSX and Linux have been capable of for years.

The problem is, noone seems to have a long enough memory to remember the Windows 2000 / 98 saga, or the Windows XP / 2000 saga that followed that…

There is nothing wrong with Vista*, similarly nothing wrong with XP*, nor is there nothing wrong with Linux*, and even with OSX* – it depends on what hardware you have and what you want to do with it.

* Of course it is not as black and white as this, all platforms have their inherent strengths and weaknesses.

I wish we would move beyond this fanboy like bashing, if there is merit to a discussion I am all for it, but I am getting fed up of reading the same FUD constantly. Most of it is simply fishing for cheap traffic.

/Rant :)

Vista SP1 – A reflection

March 23, 2008 2 comments

It is interesting how perusing or glancing at the popular tech topic currently doing the rounds on wordpress can give an insight into the impact such announcements (or software/game/hardware/press releases etc) are having on the general public. Its all well and good reading about something (in this case Vista Service Pack 1) from recognised tech insiders such as Paul Thurrott, it is far more telling to read about the experiences everyone else is having.

Here are a selection of headlines from the last few days,

Vista wreaks havok on some PCs, users complain (anti Vista blog), My Nightmare trying to upgrade to SP1 (Insightful look into incompatible drivers), Vista SP1 update not showing up is for your own good (Reasons why SP1 may not be available yet for some people), SP1 Now available, Delayed, Delayed, Delayed, SP1 Day two (interesting positive feedback from a user), Hell has frozen over (overexcited user).

And guess what? Its not (entirely) the usual doom and gloom and has become almost ubiquitous when it comes to reports about Vista. Vista Service Pack 1 has come a long way since internal betas handed out to the Microsoft beta testers. These poor guys must have been feeling particularly abused this time round if the early write ups are anything to go by. With several restarts required to complete the process (and a few hours) these so-called tech elite reported back their thoughts on the process and as you can imagine, even the most staunchly pro-Microsoft of them has a few ‘choice’ comments to make.

But anyway, fast forward to now and you will see in your Windows Updates Vista Service Pack 1 waiting patiently for you to let it into your digital home. Software and hardware compatibility is good and the lengthy installation process has been slimmed down dramatically to a single reboot after completion. Inevitably it won’t go that way for everyone with some users reporting issues with certain drivers. To Microsoft’s credit, a fairly comprehensive list of drivers that have issues has been published and I have reproduced the list below.

Realtek AC’97

For x86-based computers: Alcxwdm.sys – version 6.0.1.6242 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Alcwdm64.sys – version 6.0.1.6242 or earlier
SigmaTel

For x86-based computers: Sthda.sys – version 5.10.5762.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Sthda64.sys – version 5.10.5762.0 or earlier
SigmaTel

For x86-based computers: Stwrt.sys – version 6.10.5511.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Stwrt64.sys – version 6.10.5511.0 or earlier
Creative Audigy

For x86-based and x64-based computers: Ctaud2k.sys – version 6.0.1.1242 or earlier
For x86-based computers: P17.sys – all versions (This was originally a Windows XP-based driver.)
Conexant HD Audio

For x86-based computers: Chdart.sys – version 4.32.0.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Chdart64.sys – version 4.32.0.0 or earlier
Display drivers

Intel Display

For x86-based computers: Igdkmd32.sys – versions between and including driver 7.14.10.1322 and 7.14.10.1403
For x64-based computers: Igdkmd64.sys – versions between and including driver 7.14.10.1322 and 7.14.10.1403

Unfortunately, I am the (not-so) proud owner of a Ac’97 soundcard in my primary laptop so it looks like I may have to fish around for drivers (AGAIN!!) to get my laptop to work properly with Redmond’s latest offering. The issues here are not Microsoft’s fault. Infact, as several tech insiders have noted, Microsoft was beating the drum about drivers to ODM/OEMs for months prior to Vista’s (and SP1’s) release but when the moment came to deliver, most manufacturers did not come to the party.

The reason is simply, it is not really cost effective. Take a computer you bought in the last few years (or Motherboard) and goto the manufacturer’s website and check the date of the ‘latest’ drivers (or BIOS.) Whilst these companies are fairly diligent during the product’s lifecycle, when they move onto something else, they stop putting out bugfixes or updates because it no longer makes commercial sense for them to pay their software engineers to do so. When Vista came out, many people had equipment (like me) that was designed for XP but could, with a fair amount of tweaking, run Vista very comfortably. The problem I (and many others) faced was a complete lack of native driver support for this hardware. I understand the problem, but I still think it is ridiculous. Microsoft did try to smooth this over by building in a compatibility layer into Vista to allow the loading of some XP drivers and while this helped a lot, there were performance penalties.

For now, I am not particularly fussed about SP1 so I will be sticking to vanilla Vista until either these driver issues are resolved (unlikely) or I get the time to find replacement drivers for my laptop.

Windows 7 ‘leaked’ video

January 28, 2008 1 comment

It appears Engadget have picked up on the suspected Windows 7 video doing the rounds. However, on watching the video, looking at the pictures and digging for more details on the originating website, I am less than convinced this is, in-fact Windows 7. Registry and resource editing can change just about anything in XP and Vista along with theming and photoshopping.

 

The video appears to show a very Vista-like UI with a few of the propery pages claiming to be Windows 7. Infact, fraud or not, it is Vista for now rather than 7, Vista’s version number is 6, this video appears to show a build with version 6.1 not 7. This however does not suggest it is a fake – anyone who remembers seeing the early longhorn builds remembers seeing an essentially XP like interface with some new code running underneath.

User interfaces traditionally are added towards the end of the development cycle (as illustrated by the Longhorn Milestone 3 screenshot courtesy of Winsupersite below.) Inconsistent version numbers and the complete lack of focus and details makes me cynical about it’s authenticity.

However there has been more leaked than just a blurry video, this blog has a series of interesting pictures purportedly showing various management tweaks, from a seemingly reworked control pannel to a new simplified text size control which moves away from the size by DPI settings of XP and Vista. Innovations and improvements from version to version are to be expected, however in Windows Vista the control panel was changed quite a bit, it seems odd that Microsoft would already be retweaking it to make it similar to the ‘classic’ control pannel. Of course, I could be way off and this could just be an additional filter that can be applied.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘powershell’ version of the command prompt. Whether this is a power tool or a program that is intended for release with Windows 7, the change in syntax from the Windows time honoured ‘DIR‘ to the Unix ‘LS‘ makes for a curious change. I may be way off the mark, but if Windows 7 is actually adopting a smart user privilege level system (like *nix has had for years and Vista made a poor attempt at) the PS prefix could be indicative of some type of super user level privilege (equivalent of su or sudo) for running commands. The question is, why would you need a command prompt (or powershell) if you are not performing power user level maintenance? Command prompts have been disused for simple file transactions since Windows 3.x / 95.

We should get more details during the WHEC – until then, I learned an interesting tit-bit, Microsoft are currently developing Office 14 (Office 12 was 2007) – they skipped Office codename 13 due to superstition :)

 

The Vista Start Button

January 19, 2008 Leave a comment

I was randomly came across a document on Microsoft’s website details hardware compliance for a new type of super key. Vista appears to have the option of allowing manufacturers to replace the plain boring Windows (super) key on the keyboard in favour of a more esthetically pleasing option.

“The Hardware Start Button, an update to the Windows Key for keyboards, is designed to be an attractive and discoverable actuator for launching the new Start menu and search experiences in the Windows Vista family of operating systems.”

The document is very detailed, even containing dimensions and material requirements for a variety of designs, finishing up with a proposed ‘Hero Hardware Button’.

“…is a transparent dome that contains a full-color Windows Start Button Logo and composes the surface of the Hero Start Button”

Given the trouble Microsoft’s hardware teams have evidently gone to, its surprising that we have not seen keyboard or other input devices with such ‘special’ Windows keys.

Microsoft glares at the iPhone

December 19, 2007 Leave a comment

Before the iPhone started gaining traction, Steve Balmer is on record as saying that there was no way for the iPhone to achieve the same market share as Windows CE. A few short months on and it appears Apple’s foray into the portable devices market has led them to a position of dominance in terms of market share over all of Windows CE products.

In response to this, Ars Technica has a great summary of the new version of Windows (CE 6.1) which is Microsoft’s attempt to redesign the interface. Whilst on first glance it is impossible to tell if it removes existing limitations / annoyances that have plagued Windows CE since its inception, what is plain is that the Vista-esque design looks simply awful. It might be due to smart phones becoming more mainstream, but the transition to simpler and less informative window-spaces (despite increasing screen size) is something that annoys me.

That is not to say that there have not been fundamental (and much needed) core level design changes / optimisations, however as the iPhone has proved, people look at the interface first and then get to the annoyances typically once they have bought the product.

Lets hope that Microsoft get their act together for their upcoming Windows CE 7.0.

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