Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Update December 2012

I read 29 books in 2012, and for the first time I probably read more books digitally than I did in paper. I also read countless articles in Instapaper, on the web and in magazines.

I received an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas and I love it so far - I can tell it's going to increase my use of digital books. I was a late adopter of digital book tools, but I don't regret that - the tools have really matured and they still have a ways to go, but Amazon makes it really easy. The local Hennepin County Library has a decent lending library, and using it with the kindle is easy as long as the publisher doesn't make the book USB only, which many of them still do (but otherwise, it's a plug in, click and drag thing, so it's not a huge deal, but still - having to plug it into a computer seems like old tech). Most of my reading was done on my iPad 3. It's retina display is a huge step forward in reading off an LCD but at the end of the day it's still an LCD display and it makes me bleary eyed. So the e-ink Kindle will come in handy.

I'm proud of my 2 books a month average. I could probably read a book a week or just over 4 books per month if I really put my mind to it, and watched less TV and read less items from the internet, but I enjoy the balance. I also take breaks from reading books and seem to go through spells where I read more.

I didn't read that much that was particularly memorable. I nearly completed reading the "Prey" series by John Sandford. An easy reading thriller/mystery series set in the Twin Cities and featuring a strong protagonist in Lucas Davenport. Some of the later books in the series were starting to get old hat, and somewhat repetitive. It's probably good that Sandford is going to hang it up on this series after another book or two. But it's been a good run. I'm in the middle of Stolen Prey, the last Prey novel. I read some other Sandford books too - I started into the Virgil Flowers series and I read one of the Jason Kidd novels - The Fools Run (which feels horribly dated - it was tech focused but written in the late 80s-but it did give me that nostalgic feeling). Look forward to more from Sandford.

Other notable books I read this year include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - an enjoyable novel about a futuristic virtual reality world, The Ghost in the Wires - Kevin Mitnick's autobiography, and I started the Lost Fleet Series by Jack Campbell (and hope to finish in 2013!). Trying to keep my reading varied and split between fiction and non-fiction but I definitely read more novels this year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Upgrading an old PC to repurpose as a file server

Back in 2005 I purchased what was, at the time, a near top of the line Dell Desktop, a Dell Dimension 9100.  It was a great computer for a number of years as our primary desktop.

It ran Windows XP out of the box, which until recently, I'd never touched the installation of, despite having upgraded other computers to 7. It had a decent size drive for the time, 250GB and 1GB of RAM out of the box. It came with what was a top of the line Pentium 4, a chip that still holds up reasonably well for general computing today. The beauty of this machine is that it is a expandable dream with a great case. I'm a little sad that it was one of the few models ever produced in the failed BTX form factor that never really took off, because it would be a great case to continue using well into the future.

Over the years, we slowly replaced it as our day to day computer with laptops and such, but it was always my central repository for files. When I took baby steps into using Crash Plan a couple of years ago, it was the first machine I set up for backup (I've since converted to a family plan because we got another laptop that my wife uses). I've tried to keep all my photos on this drive, as well as a backup of my entire music library.

Over time, I've done upgrades - the original DVD drive was replaced with a burner back when that stuff still mattered. That drive died recently, I haven't bothered to replace it, even though I could get a replacement for 20 bucks, you really don't need them anymore-booting from USB keys is easier anyway, and I have two other burners on laptops on the rare occasion that I need to burn something (usually a DVD of pictures for my mom). In 2009, I put another 2 GB of RAM in and replaced the video card with a more modern version (which is still holding up well today - and works better with windows 7 then the discrete GPU in my 2008 era laptop).

Most recently, I decided that I was done with XP on this box, wanting to be able to utilize Windows 7 for more modern file sharing and management. A friend also talked me into installing Ubuntu which I'm also experimenting with. Microsoft is going to stop updating XP soon as well, and it's just time to upgrade or retire this box. I looked into building or buying a new box, but it's still cost prohibitive given our other financial priorities.  I would like to dip into the Mac universe again at some point, but not for a file server that would be used primarily with Windows laptops (and also a cost prohibitive option right now).

So, the domino effect of upgrades began. The nice thing about this box is that it has the modern PCIe architecture with multiple open slots. I updated my router to gigabit ethernet recently and replaced all of my switches with gigabit, so only natural that I'd pick up a Gigabit PCI Adapter Card for the main file server box. After that, I bought a copy of Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade . I considered upgrading my laptop to Windows 8 and trying to transfer the copy of 7 over to the desktop, but decided I wasn't ready to mess with Windows 8 yet. I will eventually upgrade my old laptop to Win 8 as an experimental device, but not yet.

Incidentally, bought and tried to install Windows 8 initially on this old desktop at the low upgrade price, but the installation failed and it reverted back to my XP installation. I didn't try it again - the other thing that started happening is the hard drive was clicking during the Windows 8 install. Behavior which I did not hear once I went back to Windows XP. But it was pretty obvious that something was either incompatible with Windows 8 or this drive was on its last legs.

When the Windows 7 upgrade showed up, I installed it from a USB Key. I made a back up using the Windows Easy Transfer program. It was very easy. (just wanted another duplicate to have along with Crash Plan). Immediately, the disk drive started clicking. Not in a good way. I restored all the files to the C drive with the transfer program. But, by the next day, the system booted into the recovery partition and wouldn't boot or re-install windows. I tried installing ubuntu but that also failed. I know a drive that is toast when I see it. It was the original 250 GB drive from 7 years ago, so I'd say it had a good life. It made it a lot longer than the external 750GB drive that died on me earlier this year.

Deciding that I wanted to continue using this machine as a file server for as long as I could, I purchased a 1 TB 7200 RPM Western Digital Blue drive from Amazon. I also bought a USB 3.0 PCIe card to use with the USB 3.0 external drive. Once all that arrived and I installed, I loaded Windows 7 back up to the new hard drive, creating a separate partition for documents and leaving space for Ubuntu. I also installed Ubuntu but I haven't used it much yet. Eventually, I'd like to run a file server off of it, but that's going to take some time. I had to use a registry workaround to install Windows upgrade media on a fresh drive, but it worked like a charm.

Instead of using Windows Easy Transfer again, I recovered from Crash Plan, to a folder on the desktop. The easy transfer program was nice and easy but it also scattered about many files that I didn't want anymore, and I wanted to isolate them. The recovery process on Crash Plan is pretty straightforward, once you figure out how to re-link an archive on an external drive (which took me some time, not an obvious thing in the software or in the restore directions on Crash Plan's site). It also took a bit of searching to figure out how to re-enable the ability to "adopt an old backup" functionality (comments in this post) once I had restored, and I'm still not 100% sure if that's working properly.

Adopting a backup with Crash Plan is supposed to take all the files and match them up to your existing backup, even if you've moved them around (which I have). I want to avoid sending another 100GB through my internet connection if I can avoid it, and so far, so good with that.  (although there is little information about how this process actually works for the more technically inclined). It was still chugging away at processing the backups a good 12 hours after the install, but it didn't seem to be adding to the archive again so far.

With the installs and upgrades out of the way, I'm moving all of our photos and documents onto this computer to serve as the central repository. I have pictured scattered over 3 machines, the same Apple photo-streams gone wild on multiple boxes (which I am going to consolidate into one on this box), and a lot of duplication that I am attempting to de-dupe. My approach is to move everything onto the documents partition on the server box, and then run a de-duplification program to identify and delete duplicates. This is going to take some time, but I'll come out the other end with a full set of data.

I'm pretty happy with the performance of my newly upgraded box. There is a noticeable performance improvement with the 7200 RPM drive. (so much so, that I'm contemplating putting a small SSD drive in to stick the OS on) The USB 3.0 card makes transfers to and from the external drive a breeze and it's really fast (so much so, that I wish the laptop we just bought last spring had USB 3.0. Sadly it doesn't.) The Gigabit Ethernet card is making file transfers on and off the box really fast from either wired or wireless connections. The processor and system bus are truly the limiting factors on this box now. It even runs Aero Glass on Windows 7 without a problem - the video card that I upgraded a few years ago doesn't choke on it at all.

All of this upgrading and Hard Drive replacement is significantly easier with Crash Plan and a large external disk drive - I wouldn't have wanted to try and do this even a few years ago, but now the materials and backup solutions have become so cheap and easy to use that it's easy to upgrade the hard drive and be back up in running in a day or two.

Barring motherboard or other major component failure, this box will probably last me another 3-5 years as a file server, and it's even quick enough to use as a general web browsing computer in a pinch. I don't think MSFT will discontinue support for Win 7 any time soon, considering some large enterprises (like my own) are just finally moving everybody onto it. Really shows you how much things have slowed down - my previous desktop only made it a bit over 4 years before it got relegated to the trash pile.

I'm going to upgrade that last Gigabyte of RAM in the Dell box to take it to the max of 4GB since it's only $25 to do so at this point, and I may mess around with the storage options a bit more since there's space for a second or third drive. In the end, I've been able to make a bunch of cheap upgrades under $300 total that have served this machine well, with some parts that I can likely bring with me to the next PC rebuild. And in the process, I've re-organized my family's files so that it's all in one place.

Cutting the cord is an abject failure

I can't quit you, Comcast, I can't quit you.

Last year, when we were headed into a period with a shifting cash flow as my wife started her in-home daycare business, I made the decision to try and switch to USI Wireless. I wrote it up here. I think it must have been working pretty well when I wrote that, as I seemed pretty satisfied with the service.

And quite honestly, we made it through many months with the service. There were sacrifices, like streaming video didn't work very well, and you'd have to wait 10-20 seconds for a youtube video to start, but for the most part, it was a reasonable service for checking email, looking at Twitter and Facebook and other general work. I tried to work at home a few times, and it was slow, but I could do it, as long as I wasn't doing file intensive work on the work servers (and that was probably due to the latency and low send speed more than anything).

Over the summer, we started to have issues. I had to reset my router/wireless AP a few times a month because it would hang, so I wasn't entirely sure if it was the router or the USI wireless that was having issues. The router was still having some issue post USIW but it was worse when I had the service. Then we had periods where it would get abysmally slow. Then it would be fast and usable for a few weeks, then it would get abysmally slow again.

We had the antenna for the unit installed in an optimal location on the outside of the 2nd story of our house. I had to run a somewhat convoluted wireless setup with a wireless repeater in the basement. It worked OK but probably contributed to speed issues on my overall network as well as probably introduced some local wireless signal strength issues. USI told me they could do a Ethernet drop but I never took them up on that because it seemed like the issues were mostly from their equipment to mine since I could achieve peak WAN speeds some of the time, and I just lived with the computer to computer LAN issues. But this may be an inconvenience for some people considering this product - they can't always install the router in an optimal place, so if you're not hard wired, you may have to stick your wireless router/AP in a sub-optimal location in your home.

Flash forward 11 months. I was already planning on going back to Comcast simply because the USIW wasn't cutting it anymore, but a few weekends ago it was grinding to a halt. So I logged in, found a good promotional deal from Comcast and signed up online. Was back up and running with them after a quick call to activate my existing modem.

USI was easy to cancel, and relatively hassle free - except that they sent me a notice saying they were going to bill me for a renewal, which I ignored.

I was very satisfied with them as a company, their service was good the few times I needed it, and the price was really good for service that was still better than the fastest DSL option. But it can't hold a candle to what Comcast offers.

USI is currently piloting fiber installations in a few Minneapolis neighborhoods and I won't hesitate for a second to switch to it if they begin to offer it in my neighborhood - right now they are charging 60% of the price for double the speed of Comcast. Even if they upgrade the wireless product at some point, I might be willing to try it again - I'd really like to reduce my dependency.

As for TV, well, ironically, now that we have cable back with Comcast I'm feeling more strongly about being able to cut the cable ties. We're not watching much original network or cable programming at all anymore, just a handful of shows during the week. Having kids has caught up with us, just no time to get into new shows. So as things have fallen off in our stable of aired shows, they have been replaced by things on Amazon instead. And with a 20Mb connection from Comcast, that streams anything in HD just fine. Sports is still the lynchpin here, as I subscribe to the Red Zone NFL Channel and watch a fair amount of NBA, NFL and MLB on cable. Still, I envision a day where the cost will exceed my willingness to pay, given Comcast's continued price increases.