Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Old tools still handy today

Today I was asked to complete a task by my co-worker, find computer accounts that have not been used in 90 days and have them disabled. Tried looking at some PowerShell scripts, but didn't want to rewrite a script or piece it together. Also since I had to leave in less than an hour I needed something fast.

Searching my all time favorite tool, I came across this helpful admin tool.


Basically this is a command line tool to search and disable (or delete) computer accounts. I ran the command with the following switches.

oldcmp -report

This first gave me an idea of how many accounts where reported, with no change.

Then I ran the actual command.

oldcmp -nodc -disable -safety 500 -unsafe -forreal

After this another report is automatically created and was able to disable the computer accounts in about 1 minute.

It's decently fast and honestly, would have taken me hours to really do this without the tool. Even with a script I would still have to tested it, ran in a development environment and I often don't trust my own scripts to disable accounts. :)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The commands I always forget

When working on Windows I always forget a few very helpful commands.

MSCONFIG.EXE - For some reason I always forget the location of this helpful tool. Basically it's a GUI for system start ups and services but the location is a bit hard to find.


SYSTEMINFO.EXE - This is a tool to list basic informtaion of the system including install date. Often when working on an older system I like to take note how old the computer is for reference.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Certification path

After spending some time studying for the Microsoft MCITP exams I had time to really understand why their are held as a standard for system administrators. Microsoft has changed the exams to a much higher standard than before. Which makes me really wished I finished my MCSE back in NT 4.0 when I had the chance instead of now with 2008. :)

While it's hard and sometimes so boring, I do like that fact that I'm preparing for the next operating system and will be much more prepared for future roll outs. What does make it fun is playing with VMware Workstation, which I highly recommend for any system admin or person interested in computers to purchase a license. It's the best $200 I've spent on software besides my Photoshop license.

Also using the TechNet account combined with studying for the exams makes it much more fun. I can now play with any of the Microsoft catalog and try out applications before they are released to get an idea how they would work in a production environment. So far, it's brought alot of much needed excitement to a rather borning topic of Active Directory.


While I'm moving along with the Microsoft certification path I also looked at other certification paths as well. One certification which I never seriously looked at is the CompTIA A+ certification.

The A+ is heavily focused upon desktop support and common IT problems including hardware issues. It's non-vendor specific so this allows the exam to cover Windows pc, and Apple Mac but gives a person a good basics about IT troubleshooting. Honestly, when I went over the test questions I first thought to myself why were they so simple. Even a few questions how to replace the toner on a printer. It seems strange but the exam really gave some good questions to honestly fix a problem in the fastest method possible.

Since I had previous experience working and repairing computers at work and at home, I knew most (but not all) of the answers. For someone just starting in the field, I would say it's a good starting point.

Now there's a few important points I have to follow up with the A+ certification. Just because someone can pass a exam does not make them a good IT support person. Also the test, while pretty solid I think has a few flaws that it's so heavily based upon hardware technology that it's easily outdated. CompTIA has recently released the 2009 version of the test to update from 2006, but I still think memorizing details such as how many pins are on a socket 370 processor is not so important as some other skills.

Also keep in mind that the A+ certification is usually aimed as a entry level IT certification. This means it's focused for help desk, IT break fix tech, and even people who work at Best Buy or Fry's. In fact, I was at Fry's a few weeks ago and in the hard drive section they had a sign for installation, then in writing below "Fry's Electronics only hires A+ certified staff". It was pretty interesting and shows how popular certifications are getting mainstream.

So I'm going to study this on the side, I figure I can use the extra help for my hardware skills and never know when it might come in hand. Also some jobs actually require these smaller certifications for getting through the HR process.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Windows Server 2008 Core

Server core is nothing new, in fact it's been out for some time but I found this handy cheat sheet from Microsoft which is helpful.

Microsoft Server Core PDF's

Exam 83-640

Recently I took the Microsoft 2008 Active Directory exam 83-640, I actually scheduled the exam for the 70-640 but looks like the 83-640 is now the standard.

The exam is now done from a virtual server where you are given a short list of tasks to complete within a amount of time. It's actually easier for me to complete than the standard multiple question exam because you can remember steps by looking around. Also amazingly enough, the help command is not disabled, which you can also use for any problems.

A few web sites have posted information about the exam, especially concerning if you make too many wrong click would that count against you or not. It turns out that no, only completling the tasks will be recorded in the final score. But a major downside, at least for my testing was the lack of any score besides my points. This doesn't allow me to go over my exam score and study on the items I need help in. The reason given by Microsoft was the testing technology was still too new. The new exam came out in early 2009 so I would guess it should have been resolved by now.

Transcender posting about 83-640 vs 70-640

ExamCollection forum post about 83-640

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Computer based training

I'm usually more sold on using books and class room training but there are times when having a on-line class is just easier. Since this semester, I'm taking two on-line classes, one for Linux shell scripting and another for Windows Server 2008 Active Directory. While both are fun classes, I wanted to really study for the Microsoft MCITP certification with the classes highly focused on the information on the certification topic.

After searching around I found a few sites that offer CBT classes. So I'm going to put down the prices for the Microsoft MCITP System Administrator classes as an example.

Testout - They offer two sets of training materials for the Server Administrator and the Enterprise Administrator. Prices are $995 and $1295, which is actually on the cheap side of classes. They include labs, exam questions, videos, and more.

LearnKey - From the web site I think this is a video series like the others but without labs or exam questions. The prices are $1395 for the Server Administrator and $2080 for the Enterprise Administrator.

TrainSignal - They offer the same videos as the others but also Transcender practice tests, labs and extra features like MP3 audio and other file formats to bring along. The pricing is $995 for the Server Administrator and the Enterprise Administrator is $1495. The hours on the courses by TrainSignal are longer and this seems like the best value for CBT (of course your experience may vary).

I'm right now studying for the Server Administrator certification and will be making a purchase soon, hopefully to further help me study.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Windows Server 2008 study guides

A forum poster on the TechNet forum posted a link to his web page with helpful Windows Server 2008 study guides.


Great news for me since he's written a guide for 70-640!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Learning on your own

I'm studying for the Microsoft MCITP certification exams and been using the self paced books from Microsoft. So far they have been very helpful but I also registered for a local community college course they uses the Microsoft Learning web site. The Microsoft Learning web site is a on-line course for the same topics as the book, Windows Server 2008 Active Directory Domain Services, etc. So far from taking the classes it's not too bad but there's a big different between using a book to learn and on-line.

One aspect I enjoy using a book is that it's something I can hold in my hand, sounds funny but I like that I can actually write in it. If I need to make a note about a tough question or good web site, I just write it down in the page. Also it's easier to study off-line when you just need to review a few pages in the book. Of course the down side is the limited interaction with the book compared with on-line classes.

The book does not offer video, example labs, additional documents, not including other technologies such as chat with other students. Overall, I still enjoy books but I think the additional help with an on-line class should help.

Certification practice exams

One part of studying for an exam is a practice exam. It's a how you prep yourself for the exam, but as you might know you can not actually have the real exam. In this case you can use various exam vendors. A nice bonus is with most books you purchase they offer a short practice exam, most of the time this exam is a bit shorter than the more expensive exams you purchase.

So if you already have a book with a practice exam is it worth the money to buy another practice exam? From my research, people say that while very close, a well know practice exam vendor will often have more realistic questions and therefore become a better prep material. I think it's worth the $50~90 per exam especially if that will help you save $100~200 to retake the exam over again.

One word, stay clear of brain dumps, or exam notes that just show the actual exam questions. These are sold by less popular exam vendors and are against the terms for many companies offering exams.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good news (or bad) for the Microsoft certifications

Just saw a link posted on Ars Technica that the end of life for Windows Server 2000 will end July 13, 2010 and Windows Server 2003 will end July 14, 2015. Sounds like it's a way to go but honestly many companies will need to already plan the move to Windows Server 2008 well before the deadline. Most applications can run on 2003 or 2008 but the problem is more of home grown applications having issues with the new 2008 servers. I'm studying for my 2008 certification and this seems to be even bigger push to get it done, especially since the all servers will be upgrade soon.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Certification and some helpful Microsoft sites

Spending time to finish my MCITP certificaiton, I finally made the date of my test for next month giving me 30 days to study for this first test. I'm not too worried but I think I would like to attempt it just to get the worries out of my system. It's going to be tough month of study.

I also found a great site that shows step by step complete with screenshots how to administrate Windows systems.


It's actually really nicely done and helpful if you're a visual learner.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Linux and the file system

While it's not news for most people I'm studying the detail of the Linux file system. It's interesting to know about the details, so I wrote up some listings I read in my Ubuntu book.

/bin - binaries that are used by admins and normal users. Commands such as cp, mkdir.

/sbin - binaries that are used only by admins or uses with higher privileges. Such as mkfs.

/lib - core system libraries that are used for the boot process.

/usr - Short for UNIX System Resource, storing all of the noncritical binaries for the system. Normally files here do not change and normally stay the same.

/usr/bin - similar to /bin but stores binaries that are not as important.

/usr/lib - program libraries.

/usr/local - used by the admin to install software locally.

/opt - similar to /usr/local, some applications install here while others use /usr/local.

/boot - files for the GRUB and boot configs.

/etc - configuration files for system admins.

/var - files that are variable in size, such as log files.

/var/log - system logs.

/var/spool - directories for contabs, print spools and mail spools.

/var/www - root directory for web servers.

/home - location of the home directory for users.

/root - home directory reserved just for the root user.

/dev - location of the device files.

/mnt - location of the mount disk or device for temp use.

/media - similar to /mnt but typically used for removable media such as CD-ROM or USB flash.

/proc - virtual file system that resides in memory, live system information.

/sys - virtual file system that holds information about devices and drivers on the system.

/tmp - are for storing data on a short term.

For more detail about each file location visit the site Linux Filesystem Hierarchy which has a great amount of information.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some good job information from Microsoft

While I don't like some of the things Microsoft has done in the past, I have to give them credit for offering a lot of free videos and great tips on their sites. After searching around about certifications I found a Microsoft web site with lots of information about find a job, changing a career and where to go next.

It's focused for people in the IT world but I watched the videos and they honestly would work with anyone, it's basic job hunting skills.

The videos are under the "Get Started" section, listed as "Thrive Live" parts 1 to 3.

Microsoft Thrive - Getting Started

At first seeing all of this information focused on finding a job worried me but honestly, I like that a big company like Microsoft offers these small videos. I know they are pushing to sell their books and certifications for more sales of their software. Eh, it's still free.
Features of Windows 7

Windows 7 is coming soon and like previous versions of Windows, should be some good things and bad, mostly changes. I played with Windows 7 for a little bit, then recently I finally bought a TechNet subscription to download the other versions of Windows 7. After installing on my main workstation, I have to say that it's already more impressive than Vista.

But one feature which I have been really waiting for with Vista, is backwards compatibility with Windows XP applications. In Vista, while you could run applications as Windows XP using the "compatibility" function, I think Windows 7 went further and should work with more XP applications. I am really excited about this and once I have it installed will give it the ultimate test.

If I can install my copy of Adobe Photoshop CS2, I will be so happy! I haven't used Photoshop in so long due to both of my main computers running on Vista, which I could never get Photoshop running correctly. Ironically it was working better in Linux under Wine, than in Vista.

The download is about 500MB but should be worth it if it works. :)

Windows XP RC

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Experience from Linux as a desktop, short term trial

In my previous posting I mentioned that I spent about 4 weeks with a Linux system as my full time computer. I still have Vista running on my notebook but my main computer is where I browse and apply for work, so it does a bunch of work for me. After the 4 weeks I wanted to write out some of the pros and cons of working with Linux and what might help out to transition Linux to full mainstream.

First, the installers of Linux has been so much better than when I first installed Linux. I think I first was exposed to Linux Red Hat version 3. I saw the box and read about it on-line but at the time was connected to the Internet with a 56K line, so downloading the entire cd set would taken hours. I instead bought the set from Fry's Electronics and begain the install process.

After installing Linux I ran into a few problem, the video card was not working, the modem did not work either (even though I bought a non-Winmodem) so I was not able to download any drivers or work around this issue. At the time I only had one computer and made things tough to get around. I think I did try Linux again later when I got broadband Internet but didn't venture further than getting the GUI to run and play some simple games.

Now after looking for work I'm finding that many jobs are asking for basic knowledge of Linux, either for Windows system admin positions or even help desk support jobs. I was also curious about getting to know Linux better. After I took a few classes about UNIX and a certification class for Linux, but really wanted to know more.

The installer now is much much smoother. My Fedora and Ubuntu installers found all of the drivers, except for the audio and video drivers but I was still able to work and access the Internet for the drivers. After locating the drivers I was able to find Linux 64bit drivers for my hardware, something a bit rare 8 years ago. I started the install of the drivers but it's not as simple as in Windows.

In Linux you will either have a run file or a gzip file for the driver download. Here's where it gets a bit technical, in order to run the files you might need to make some commands on the command line. Now, in all honesty it's very simple, just run this command and you're done but it's another part of why Linux might not be for the casual computer user.

Another problem I found was the driver install could render your desktop with the wrong display settings and the only way to change this is starting the command line start up, editing the config files and then you should be good to go. This happened to me in Fedora but not Ubuntu.

Going on to application, I feel this is where Linux shines, there are many applications that are open source and able to run typically paid-only applications from Windows. For example, I found a great IRC chat application but on Windows I always couldn't find something that would work the same AND cost nothing. I also liked that with Wine, you could run Windows applications under Linux. This includes games, basically most applications. I was able to get my Photoshop CS2 running while it does not run at all on Vista.

There are some problems with Wine, for one I installed it on Fedora and Ubuntu, Wine only worked on Fedora with no problems while on Ubuntu there were many issues. I couldn't start any Windows applications, even after patching and updating. Of course I'm sure it's a problem of configurations but shows an example of out of the box it needs some work.

What is a really nice feature of Linux is the ability to install packages using the YUM or APT-GET command. These commands pull down the application files and install the application in one command line. This really makes it easy to install most command applications or even other third party applications if you include the source of the applications.

On the topic of applications there were some issues that I found. Since I was editing my resume and sending out applications to jobs, I was often using Sun's Open Office Suite. With Open Office you can save documents as DOC but not the new DOCX format. I was working on my resume when I sent a copy to my girlfriend, after a few minutes she called that the formatting was off. To be sure, I sent the same version to my Vista machine and opened it up in Office 2007, sure enough all of my formatting was off by a page or so.

Now, many people send resumes in many formats but I think it's a valid point that not all documents will save the same formatting as they are opened by different applications. In turn, there are more Office users than there are Open Office users, so to make my resume the most compatible I can either use Office or send the resumes in a new format. I started to send out resumes in PDF format but quickly I found out that Craiglist blocks attachments beyond a certain size, and my PDF documents were beyond that size. So I restored back to sending my resume and cover letters in standard text format, which worked but had a few people ask for a DOC format instead.

I really considered sending the documents in the Open Document standard that Office 2007 can now open but if my guess is correct, many people do not patch their Office suite and can not open any other document format. Either way, I sent out my cover letters and resumes in text format but when they ask, it's in DOC format created from my Vista computer. I rather do a bit extra work just in case to get that job.

From my using Linux experience I found that while it's grown to a great OS I'm still not sure if it's ready for the standards of a Dell or Gateway PC. There is going to be required knowledge to install drivers, and since the GUI is not always the ideal tool to use, some command line knowledge as well.

Does this mean Linux could never become main stream?

Well no. Linux has a huge bonus that it's free to use and deploy. I see an ideal Linux desktop install for netbooks, where the user is only using the the system for Internet or simple chat applications. Linux is also proven in areas where a stable OS is needed that does not have any security issues, such as the file share devices or home routers. But in the world where people constantly install games, applications and share files that need to be the same format, I don't see Linux taking over soon.

Now, this argument is not the same on the server side. Microsoft has already mentioned that they know about the growth of Linux and adding Linux to their virtual software. We'll see how this turns in the next few years but looks to be very interesting.
The strangest computer problem solved!

For a few weeks I've been battling this strange issue on my main yellow computer. I call it the yellow computer because it's a Cooler Master case in yellow and black, a special edition color I picked up from Fry's Electronics. After I had the computer running for about two years, I wanted to install a distro of Linux so I downloaded Fedora 11 and Ubuntu 9, installed them including the drivers to have a running system.

After a few days of running my Linux system, I wanted to play some video games and the Wine Windows emulator was not as stable as I liked, so I decided to reinstall with my Vista Ultimate.

This is where the problems started. I first ran the installer as normal but suddenly the OS would hang upon first boot up. I kept wondering maybe there's some files still left on the hard drives? So I used a USB to SATA device, then Acronis Disk Director to erase the drives and confirm there is no hidden partitons or MBR's left on the disk. Once I confirmed by using a full data wipe method, I restarted the install, then was stuck at the same point. I even bought a new 1TB hard drive I saw on sale, figured I might as well add some drives while I have the computer case opened. Still installing on the brand new drive had the same results.

I started to think maybe there's something hanging on the system. I posted some threads and found out people mentioned it could be the memory, drives are holding a MBR from Linux, my computer might be destroyed. After thinking about the problems, I went back and reinstalled Ubuntu 9, since I had no problems with the install I figured I keep it on until I found a real solution.

From using Linux full time I felt like I wanted to go back and run my Windows apps, so I installed Vista again. I figure since the computer was running with no problems for the past month I would be ok. Well, Vista installed to the same point but instead of hanging, it would blue screen and crash.

The system would install fine, reboot and upon startup, that "Windows is starting" message, it would instantly reboot, flashing a blue screen. So I restarted the startup in safe mode, and found out it was hanging on the install of CRCDISK.SYS.

I searched Google for the solution but found many articles pointing out random problems caused by this from error. Many of the users listed fresh installs, changing hardware, to even the error randomly happending on a new system. Basically none of the solutions worked and I was still stuck with the same problems.

For a wild idea, I flashed my motherboard BIOS to the latest version. This seemed to work as I was able to get Windows to boot but the OS was extremely slow, even moving the mouse was stuttering and barley working. Something still wasn't working right.

At this point I was frustrated, I already tried everything I could think of, my next step would be to disassemble the entire computer and test each component, which could take hours.

While playing on-line game World of Warcraft, I was chatting with some guild members about the problem. Two people mentioned that it sounds like a issue with the DVD drive or the media. I was thinking, how could the media be so problematic, doesn't the Windows installer check the files before installing?

To test the theory I needed another copy of Vista. Since I was going to purchase the subscription someday, I figured I start a TechNet subscription and use the unlimited trials of Windows 7 Ultimate. Downloaded the ISO and key, burned to a DVD and started the install process again. This time success!

After I was up and running with Windows 7, I took some time to rethink my trouble shooting process and why I didn't think of using a new media?

Part of the problem was the install with Linux. When I was installing Linux I used two different versions on two different medias, one was on a dvd and that was Fedora 11, while the other was on a cd and that was Ubuntu 9. The Fedora 11 installed fine, then I reinstalled Ubuntu 9, but after that the Fedora 11 didn't install correctly. I think instead of checking the dvd of Fedora I instantly assumed it was the computer hardware. So I switched to Vista and the same error, which made me believe it was something related to what was the similar hardware, the hard drives.

I really enjoy working on computers, I think even after years of support I still find that I'm new and always learning skills. Of all of the possible technical solutions, it was the easiest, just a 10 cent dvd fixed the problem.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Recently a friend mentioned to me a UNIX workstation at his work could not start the GUI or xwindows. The OS could start but since the desktop was limited to a command line, there was a bit of problem getting back to the applications on the desktop since the windows could not be started. Unfortuntaley my friend did not have any backup of the systems and the application looks like it was having problems so it could be more than a simple copy of a few files.

Thinking about backups, they are usually considered something nice but not always kept at a high priority. Often when a new system is purchased, the last item, if even remembered is the backup license or software. Not to mentioned how many stand alone systems are purchased with out a valid backup solution, or how many are in production with out testing the restore procedures.

From my experience at home and in the enterprise data center, a backup is a make or break point for the system. If you have a backup, even a old backup from a few months ago, it's far better than starting over from a base OS. In once case at my previous job, a key system in a multi-tier application crashed from a hardware issue. Basically the system ran a SQL server that was a key component for updating workers in the distribution centers. With this one server down, the entire work force of workers would have to be let go and this would impact the company with a lost of several thousand dollars of work and merchandise not shipped to the stores.

After I found the server lost a drive and was not mirrored (old HP ProLiant DL310) I installed a new drive and OS, but the problem was installing the applications and data. We had a process for emergency bare metal restores but it was never 100% successful, often requiring some fine tuning and slight fixes. We were lucky and the server came up with some tweaking from our SQL DBA but it was down to the wire. To say we were on edge is to say the least, I was there till 4AM on Sunday waiting for the ok from the application team.

Thinking back to how important backups are, I have been not taking regular backups of my personal computers. Mostly I think my reason why I skip out is I usually keep my files across multiple computers and take a backup about twice a year. It's lazy and after thinking if I lost everything, how much would I really loose?

I actually almost found this recently.

On my main workstation, I usually run Vista Ultimate on the workstation but it's been running slower and slower over the years. Thinking I'm going to upgrade when I have time, I backed up my files over the past few months. The past month I wanted to install a Linux workstation instead of working from a virtual desktop. Installing on a physical box involves some extra challenges such as locating the correct drivers.

After installing the Linux on my workstation, by changing the boot drive from C:\ to my D:\ drive, I found that some how my master boot record was changed. Tried some recommended steps, the reinstalled Vista, thinking I could reinstall to a junk directory but still copy off my data. To my surprise, I checked and all of my data was gone!

Actually, the Vista installer copied all of my data to a new folder Windows.old, I used a USB to SATA device and I was able to copy my data. I was extremely lucky, I had my resumes and other data that I could have lost and did not have a recent backup.

Like the issue at the old job, the lost of data or non tested restores can be the success or failure of any data restore. If I lost my resumes, that would be about a few days of work, not to mention that I would be behind on my job search.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Building a computer cheaply

Recently I order a new computer from Newegg. It's a computer that I will use for a home server and to practice installs, basically a more powerful machine than my spare computer I have now. I was looking for a few key items in my next computer, basically a computer that had user replaceable parts, common chassis size, room for expansion, plus drivers available in Linux.

At first, I was considering a small desktop computer with a Intel Atom processor the same as used in the common netbooks. After using my netbook for the past few months and seriously playing around with the smaller processors I felt like this would not be a productive for a server. The big gain of the Intel Atom is the power savings, but if the server is so low performance, I could use a 1GHz desktop I have now to use instead.

Once I figured out I wanted to use a normal processor, I decided to choose between Intel and AMD, both parties have great processors but I was looking for a good price vs performance. Searching around prices from Newegg and Fry's I finally decided upon the AMD Phenom 9950 Agena 2.6GHz. The price was just over $100, had great reviews and with the new quad core processor, should have a bit more power than the older dual core.

Choosing a motherboard was easier, I found the prices of the Micro-ATX motherboards much cheaper than the full sized ATX motherboards. I also chose off brand memory to lessen the cost over premium brand memory, still using 4GB so I will have enough to run at least 3 virtual machines. Topping off with a decent mid-tower case, 500 watt powersupply, and a 600GB hard drive I was complete. I did not buy a video card because the motherboard has built in video as well as using ATI which offers Linux support. The total amount I spent was $500 for everything but I think it's a good mix of performance, long term usability and Linux support.

After looking at the features, I wonder just how cheap could a desktop computer be built for? All of my pricing is from Newegg, they offer very reasonable prices and their shipping is usually competitive.

Let's start off with a desktop, 4GB of memory, at least 500GB hard drive, video card, including monitor.

CPU - ~$70 (Intel or AMD)

Intel - Intel Pentium E5200 Wolfdale 2.5GHz 2MB L2 Cache LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor

AMD - AMD Athlon II X2 245 Regor 2.9GHz 2 x 1MB L2 Cache Socket AM3 65W Dual-Core Processor

For the price this processor is cheap and with the 65W power offers some power saving. The down side is it might be a tad slower than a same speed 125W cpu. For the price I feel like this is a good value per dollar. If you search around you can sometimes find older generation processors like the AMD 6400's for under $50 but I personally think this might be a bad idea. For some of the older generations of processors use older socket types and finding a motherboard could cost more than using a new processor.

Motherboard - ~$60

Intel - ECS G31T-M7 LGA 775 Intel G31 Micro ATX Intel Motherboard

AMD - ECS GF8100VM-M3 AM2+/AM3 NVIDIA GeForce 8100 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard

Both of these motherboards are the micro-ATX size, which means they are physically smaller and lack the additional features of a full sized ATX motherboard. For most users is this fine and in fact, the majority of desktop systems sold by Dell or Gateway use a micro-ATX format motherboard. While these offer on board video, even audio they do not have digital video output for DVI, the feature will cost you about $10 more in price.

Memory - ~$50

Intel - OCZ Gold 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400)

AMD - OCZ Platinum 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 1066 (PC2 8500)

The Intel memory is DDR2800 while the AMD memory is DDR21066, there is more selection of DDR2800 memory but for the needs, you shouldn't have any reason to pick one over the other. 4GB is the standard I feel for most users, the price is cheap enough were you should not skip out and offers a great performance per dollar.

Hard drive - $85

Western Digital Caviar Green WD10EADS 1TB 32MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5"

There are some reviews of the 1TB hard drives too slow but for the price, I think it's a great deal. If you wanted a 750GB expect to pay about $70, so for $15 more you get 250GB extra. There are some deals from Fry's also but expect the price to be similar until the 2TB drives start to drop in price.

Video card - included with motherboard

I'm skipping the video card since the motherboard has on board video.

DVD drives - $30

Sony Optiarc Black 24X DVD+R 8X DVD+RW 12X DVD+R DL 24X DVD-R 6X DVD-RW 12X DVD-RAM 16X DVD-ROM 48X CD-R 32X CD-RW 48X CD-ROM 2MB Cache SATA DVD/CD Rewritable Drive

Case - $25

Rosewill R220-P-BK Black 0.5mm SECC Steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case

Rosewill makes very reasonable priced cases and offer a good selection of choices. There's a few choices on cases, from the basic to the extreme. I personally prefer to spend a bit more on cases since they outlast the other parts in my computer. I am using a case I bought three years ago and it's still good as new.

Powersupply - $20

Sunbeam PSU-BKS-480-US 480W ATX12V Power Supply

Again, you can choose something cheap or extreme. I think the 480W of power should be more than enough for the computer. If you intend to use more drives or a larger graphics card you might need to upgrade.

Monitor - $150

ASUS VH222H Black 21.5" 5ms HDMI Widescreen 16:9 Full HD 1080P LCD Monitor Built in Speakers 300 cd/m2 1000:1 (ASCR20000:1) w/ SPDIF out

Like the case, you will have the monitor usually longer than the computer. I like the wide screen and the price difference from a 22" wide screen to a standard 19" is only $50. I think it's well worth the extra screen space for multitasking.

Extras - $40

Keyboard and mouse are usually a personal preference, but there's many choices available.

Total cost - About $530 plus tax and shipping.

With some careful shopping you can get this price even lower and find some better deals. These prices are not on sale and the standard every day prices.

You can also buy a refurbished system from the major manufactures but I like to build a computer because you have more options.

Ars Technica also has a good system guide which is aimed towards the budget computer gamer.

Ars Technica System Guide April 2009

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Netbooks - yay or nay

A few months ago I purchased a Asus netbook, it's the standard model with the 10" screen. At first it was great, I installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix and everything was working. But soon after I started to do some real work that I found the keyboard was just too tiny to work on. The shift key was about the size of a regular key and I was constantly pressing the up arrow instead of shift.

After a short time I modified the keyboard to elimate flex and a few weeks later, the keyboard started to fail. At this time, I switched to using a Apple keyboard plugged into the netbook. Ironically my little netbook was now taking up more space than a full sized notebook. Once I had the netbook working again with the keyboard I tried a few more applications, getting away from the limitations of the small keyboard.

Interesting, I found that it was still hard to really do any work that required multiple applications or larger resolutions. For example, I'm reading about Ruby, it's a script program language available on multiple platforms. Basically you write the scripts using a text editor, save as *.rb, then run the files from a terminal using the command "ruby filename.rb".

This sounds easy, in fact you can have multiple windows open on a normal computer, and watch Hulu or something else while work. But not on the small resolution of the netbook. Due to the small screen size, just opening up the text editor you take up the entire screen. From here you need to switch to the terminal window, which also takes up the entire screen. It's not such a big problem, many people are used to switching screens, and many laptops are sold with low resolutions such as 1080x640.

The hard part is really working around these limitations and is the lower cost of the netbook worth the trade off. After spending more time, I feel like the netbook is great for checking e-mails, Internet, having fun with Linux packages but I'm not sure how much else.

Currently I keep the netbook for fun and learning but I'm building a new system which I'll pick a regular workstation with a standard processor.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


Songbird is a open source music player for various clients, from Windows to Linux. I played with this player before on Windows XP and wasn't too impressed, not sure which version but it was a few years ago.

Recently I changed over my main workstation desktop from running Vista for two years to Ubuntu 9 Linux. After making this change I needed to find a simple music player that offered many of the functions of iTunes but on the Linux platform. I could have gotten iTunes to run in Wine but prefered to use something open source.

Playing with version 1.2 of Songbird I'm really impressed of the layout and speed of playing songs from the browser. There's nice little features like Mixtape that show you details of the artist, complete with Wikipedia links. You can import songs like most music players and the import function works just as fast of iTunes.

Another nice feature is the listing of Last.FM for steaming radio, which is sometimes missing from other popular music players. I have to say that I looked at the listing of popular Linux music players, including Amarok, which was highly rated but didn't work as clean for me.

Overall it's nice to find applications that are open source and work better than their popular applications.
Linux and the master boot record problem

Recently I purchased a new 1TB drive for my computer. I was running out of space and could not backup my main drive of 500GB without a larger drive. Since the price has come down since they been released I bought a Western Digital and installed with no problem.

After I had this new larger drive I decided that I should try installing Linux on my main computer but use another disk, my old backup for the Linux install. So I first changed the boot up process in BIOS, from the 500GB to the 250GB, then installed Fedora11 64bit version.

Fedora installed with no problems, even got Wine to install AND run Photoshop CS2! But I noticed that I could not change the audio setup. Then I installed the video drivers, ATI 3850 video card, after that I lost video on reboot. Yikes!

At this point I decided to try Ubuntu 9, to compare the differences between the drivers and application install process. Also I wanted to see how hard it was from using YUM vs APT-GET or DEB packages. When I did the install of Ubuntu on the same 250GB the install crashed out and couldn't reinstall, in fact I couldn't reinstall any OS on the same drive.

I was really worried that I might have lost my Vista partition on the main 500GB drive, sure enough I loaded it up and got a blue screen of death. Lucky for me I had a simple USB to SATA device so I saved all of my data but this wasn't the path I wanted to take upgrading my pc. lol

Once all of my data was safe, I disconnected the 1TB backup drive, the 250GB drive, and just enabled the 500GB main drive. Restarted the Vista install and Windows would hang upon reboot. Even after scrubbing the entire drive, I would still see this error. So I asked in forums and most of the answers were about the master boot record. The master boot record (MBR) holds the data of how to boot an OS, if this is missing, the computer is not sure where to load the OS. It's similar to a starter on a car, the engine could be working just fine but can't start without the starter. The starter is only needed once the engine is turned off, but always needed to start up.

After being really stuck on this issue, I finally just tried to reinstall Ubuntu but this time I removed all of the partitions from the installer, and created a new partition. I did this many times before but just for luck, tried it again. As luck would have it, Ubuntu installed with no problems!

Once it was safe that it's running good, I started to down load the drivers I needed. I found both of my video card and sound card were working with their Linux 64 bit drivers, very happy! Then I installed some extras, but so far it's working great!

Now, I'm still confused by this problem and asked my Dad about it. We both think that the Vista installer could not erase the MBR correctly and only when using Ubuntu the installer over wrote the MBR.

Either way, this is a nice Linux install, now only if I could get Photoshop CS2 to work with Wine again. :)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Windows 2008 Sysprep?

Sysprep is a great tool for Windows administrators. It enables a server to be "reset" and copied so they can redeploy the server to a new system, saving time on the installation time. Normally it's a quick method to deploy a system on a physical server to save time but really shines on virtual servers where it's common to deploy new images.

So how does it work?

On 2008 go to the following

From here selection the following options.

1) System Cleanup Action - Select "Enter system out-of-box-experience"
2) Shutdown Options - "Power off"

I usually choose power off because I want to take a image or clone the server after it's been reset using the Sysprep tool. Overall the method to Sysprep is much simpler than before. In the older version of Sysprep in Windows 2003 and XP, you had to copy the Sysprep folder to the C:\ drive and then run the tool to built the options, then run Sysprep.

It's a good sign to see Microsoft make the effort to give a few more tools for the admins.
Follow up testing results with OpenDNS

After posting about OpenDNS I figure I try this out at home to test. So far after using it for a few days, I have not seen any slowness or change of Internet speeds. Using a custom filter, I blocked the usual sites any business would block, pornography, plus other sites like proxy bypass sites (these allow users to bypass OpenDNS's filtering).

Using Google I made a search for "proxy bypass" and just clicking the first result received a OpenDNS message window that the site in question has been blocked. A nice feature is each site blocked brings up a "contact your admin for questions" window. If a user is indeed using the site for business use, they can send a e-mail message and this will be directly sent to the registered e-mail address. From here you are given a choice as the admin, either continue blocking the site (no action needed) or "white list" the site, by unblocking it.

Overall it works but there are some slight issues. First is the filtering is connected to your IP address. For some ISP's they do not issue a static IP address but a dynamic IP address. Blocking these addresses is more difficult but not impossible, normally your router should not acquire a new IP address frequently so the filtering will still work. OpenDNS also features a nice tool that allows a computer in the network to update OpenDNS with a change in the dynamic address. This is important because if OpenDNS is not updated with the new IP address, the filtering will no longer work.

Overall I am giving a high recommendation for OpenDNS at home or work, anywhere you want to filter Internet access. It's great for parents who can't watch their kids all of the time on the Internet but still want some on-line safety. Important to say the best method of protection for kids is basic supervision and not leaving them alone with the computer.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A bit technical, Microsoft Active Directory and password polices.

For years I worked in a large corporate environment where we have a large range of users. From the very basic who's task was only to enter data or scan documents, to a wide range of computer engineers. In the mix of these users was also a mix of people who has various rights to sensitive data, from payroll information to details of sales forecasting.

So you know that there's so much important information, how do you start securing the data? The first block is your password.

As simple as it sounds, many users don't take this very seriously. You can often find users keeping their passwords on a note on their desk, or even using a simple word for their password. While you can force all of the users with a strong password policy enforced by Group Policy, the problem is this will sometimes have a backwards effect.

Instead of the users making more complex passwords and remembering them, they might be more inclined to make a password to meet the requirements and then write this down on a note. An example of this is a password policy that requires 10 letters, special characters, users could use something simple such as JohnSmith123#, then change this as required to JohnSmith124#, etc.

So now you know the users have a problem with complex passwords, how do you get around this hurdle? There's ways where you can have upper management force password policies but the time and money spent on helping users with complex passwords might not be best for users who have no access or little risk to important data. Now you are considering two password policies on the domain.

With Windows 2003 Active Directory you are only available to apply a password policy to the Default Domain Policy that will take affect on all users in the domain. This is tough because you only want to limit the high risk users such as Administrator.

Introduced in Windows 2008 Active Directory you can now have "sub groups" called Password Settings Object (PSO) which can apply a password policy to a domain group instead of to the entire domain. This is great feature which many admins have battled with in their domain, trying to secure a group of powerful users.

It's a great feature and think this is a valid reason alone to upgrade to Windows 2008.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A cheap alternative to Websense

There's sometimes issues where you need to filter or block the Internet access at home, school or in special environments such as a church. There are solutions but many of them cost a subscription fee or their prices are beyond normal affordable prices. What can you do when the client is looking for something that is free or of little cost?

This where you can use a service from OpenDNS, which blocks or allows custom websites depending upon your requirements. The cost of this service is free and open to home user including small businesses, not sure if this is ok for large businesses you will need to check before implementing.

So how does this work? It's simple!

Basically you setup you computer or router and change the DNS address from your ISP to OpenDNS's DNS servers, and From there you create an account on OpenDNS to choose what you would like to filter or not. You can choose various options such as adult content, gambling, or chat sites, even steaming video like YouTube. It's that simple.

In the case you need to open or allow a certain site, or a site that is not included you can manually add sites as needed. It's great for a church Internet computer that you do not want people accessing porn sites, it's also great for a kids computer where you want to block social networking sites for their safety.

I'll report back how well this works out after I try this at home.
Ham radio field day 2009

A fun day in the park with the local radio club. While I didn't make any calls I did help out with the logging of calls to the station. Overall it was pretty fun, listening for that distant station and trying to understand what their call sign was. It's amazing to contact people about 400 miles away on the somewhat simple setup. At night, the distances are further, then you can contact about 1,000 miles away.

I want to get my General class license even more!



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Friday, June 26, 2009

Windows to Linux - where to start?

I'm studying Linux further than I've studied it before. I've taken classes for the Linux certification path but only a select few classes and not the complete course. So far my only experience in the Linux world is installing and playing with various versions, but nothing as in depth or real world as I done in the Windows world.

So how do I get started?

The first is basically understanding how Linux works. This is not as easy as just reading a book since you would need to really understand what to do when things go wrong. What are the commands from Windows that will work in Linux?

An easy step to try Linux is finding an old notebook or workstation and installing any popular version, such as Ubuntu or Fedora. You can download these versions directly from the links or you can also order a CD or DVD if your Internet connection is slow. Average sizes range from 700MB for a CD and about 2GB for a DVD version, but highly depends upon the Linux version. Some versions such as PuppyLinux take up only a few megs.

The installation process is much easier than before, you should expect to have a seamless install. Even on older systems the install process is easy and not as involved as with Windows XP or Vista.

For reference here are some articles that help get you started.

Linux Newbie Guide
Linux Newbie (this is geared for an admin view so it has more details

Once you have Linux installed on your computer you can understand the basics of using the tools from the regular Windows method of using the mouse. But as you grow with your Linux skills there are some function that are best done from command prompt or by editing files.

At this point you should start reading more technical documents about Linux, from an administration point of view.

Here's some links to get started.

Rute User's Guide to Linux (a great more in depth guide)

From here there's plenty to learn.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Career path change, with certification

After loosing my job from my employment for almost 9 years I have been taking some time off to research where I want to go next. For the past few years I've been loosing interest in my job, where I was a Windows system administrator. Day in and day out, I felt like I was stuck in the same job functions, not learning anything new, while I was just called upon when things went south.

Once I was let go, I started to deeply think what was wrong with my old job and what did I want to change to. It's such an easy question, most people would say that they don't like their managers, co-workers, job functions, etc. When I started to write the list of what I don't like about my current job, and what I do like.

Below was my list.

Dislikes -
Being called at all hours
Working with non-team players
Limited growth

Likes -
Helping people
Working in a team
Able to move towards different teams or departments

After thinking about the jobs available I realized that I could move to any career I wanted but the first step is learning and getting the experience. I do enjoy working in the IT field, but wanted to do more than stay on the Windows side. My first choice was to look at the Linux administration, I always felt that when I was working on Windows there was so many functions "hidden" from an admin view. When I would call Microsoft for help they only offered more cryptic answers which really bothered me. It was as if I bought a car but couldn't open the engine hood to see what was wrong but had to take it to the dealership.

Then I was thinking that I do like security, on Windows but any other OS in general. I liked the research I did for Windows and see how I could apply security in order to keep a system safe from harmful users. While I would need to understand the Windows world even further, there is also a matter of learning new security information.

Down the longer 1 year path I might still make a serious change in my career but I first need to find a job again, and make the best of it.

Where I want to go is first get a certification, which will allow me to further sell myself as a more successful administrator. The choice on which certification is pretty basic, I'm mostly thinking of the Microsoft Windows MCITP Administrator, but at the same time I am also interested in the Redhat Linux RHCE which is also a great selling point.

Which will I finally go for? I have much more experience on Windows so I will go for the MCITP first, but until I have a full time job, I have the time to explore the two.

Will see just where I land, I'm currently looking for a job and hope I can get employed shortly.
Ham Radio Field Day

Next weekend is the ham radio field day. During June 27th to 28th all amateur radio operators are encouraged to bring out their radios into the outdoors and operate with other amateur radio operators. This is also a great time to view how ham radio works and ask the operators questions.

My friend and I are planning to visit the local ham radio club to see their field day setup. Not only will we get to ask some questions and see a full radio operation, but also get more ideas of how we want to pursue ham radio further. While exploring ham radio there are some great areas to learn about it's much easier to just ask someone in person than read a book.

Will report how this turns out, but I think this will be a good experience.

Also I am hoping to get more information about the amateur radio ARES. ARES is Amateur Radio Emergency Services, a volunteer program that gathers ham radio operators in need of emergency communications.

Recently in Santa Cruz county a major communication line was cut. This in turn stopped almost all communications between the Santa Cruz area to the South Bay. Thanks to the ham community who helped out as line communication was down, but radio is always available.

Since I have a C.E.R.T. certification already I could be more helpful.

Will report back. :)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Amateur Radio HF

For the past few years I had my Technician class license for ham radio. Basically you are limited to transmitting on the UHF and VHF frequencies. After searching around I found that it's more interesting to find contacts in distance areas instead of local. So now I'm studying for my General class license which will give me access to the HF frequencies and able to talk much further than with VHF or UHF.

Here's a link with more details of each license and their benefits.


What do I want to do once I receive the General class license?

Basically have a HF radio set up were I can go anywhere and talk with people from longer distances, without the use of a repeater (a device that repeats a VHF or UHF radio signal to have further range). Such as this example of a hiker taking out his radio during a day on a local trail.


If you are interested in learning how to pass your amateur license tests I highly recommend going to this site which offers great practice tests.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Problems on the Asus 1000HE

After tinkering around with the netbook I found that the keyboard was some what loose. So I took off the keyboard and found that there was a small amount of sticky tape that holds the keyboard to the netbook. While the tape works, it only holds for a bit before coming undone.

As a solution I bought some double stick tape from Wal Mart and applied this to the bottom of the keyboard. After I placed it back on the netbook I felt like it was too thick and caused some of the keys to stick. I cleaned off the extra double stick tape and then made much smaller strips, about the size of 1/8" x 3".

Placing this back on the netbook, I felt like it was a big improvement but a few weeks later random keys stopped working on the keyboard. So now I'm left with a netbook that can not type certain keys. :)

Will be calling Asus and having it replaced but if they don't I can just buy a new keyboard replacement and just deal with the looseness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Small netbook experience

So this is my first post from the Asus netbook and so far it's not too bad. The keyboard while smaller is not as small as I expected. I used subcompact notebooks from Sony that were much harder to type. It did take some adjustments to get used to the smaller size, honestly even for my fingers I feel like it's very close in size to a normal laptop. The only problem I found is the shift key on the right side which I use the most is about the size of a normal key. I keep hitting this and mistyping due to it's smaller size. Also the keyboard feels like it's a bit loose, there's a little give when I press down on the keys.

After starting up Windows XP home edition on the netbook I was excited to load Ubuntu Netbook Remix. After a few readings of the instructions I was able to use my photo memory card and load a IMG image from the web site to test. Once I confirmed the wireless card and other details worked fine, I installed this over my XP install. Now it's running very smoothly under Linux. I'm going to take this to work and give it a good test on the applications. Find out just how well the netbook with Ubuntu really work out. :)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Netbooks and small computers

I just recently purchased a netbook, a Asus 1000HE with a 10" screen. It's very similar to your typical laptop computer but uses a smaller processor and can last longer on a single charge. A big point of this small computer is how long a single charge will last, on my old notebook the battery was going out, so I was used to lasting about 15 minutes before the computer died. On my more recent laptop, a larger Asus gaming laptop, the power lasts about 1 hour before needing to be plugged in. Again, it's not designed to run off batteries, but in some cases it's nice to have the option.

With the netbook, the small size and long battery life allows me to run away from power up to 9 hours. This is a great feature if I want to check the Internet from the garage, or while I'm at Starbucks, etc. It's hard enough to find a power outlet from coffee shops and this would be handy when you find that nice sofa but no power anywhere.

Of course, there are down sides as well. The smaller sized keyboard, about 93% of a full size, is harder to type longer periods. In addition the screen is smaller, a 10" is now very small, not sure if this would be great for long term reading, such as PDF files. Also the netbook lacks any media drives, you need to store everything from a USB CD-ROM or USB drive.

When I receive the netbook I'll post just how well it's going to fit my needs.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Old games revisited

I recently found the game site Good Old Games which sells older games for very reasonable prices. Most of the games range from the early 90's to present day, and the prices are starting at $5 to about $10. A big plus is that each game is DRM free, meaning that once you buy it, that's it, no codes, authentication or any problems down the road. GoG also takes developers and custom tunes the same so they can run in Windows XP and Vista with no problems.

So after hearing about this I purchased two games. First I bought Fallout, this was the original games, with the new Fallout 3 is based upon. Since I played a few hours on Fallout 3, I wanted to see just how closely does the new Fallout feel to the original. Also I was interested in Fallout since it's often a topic of the greatest games ever made.

Surprising, the install of the game was quick and easy. GoG makes their own installer which I assume added additional files to the game to help run on newer systems. As I started up the Fallout I saw that it played with no problems but I couldn't change the screen resolution, which was stuck at 640x480. Now at the time this game came out that was normal but I'm playing on a 1920x1280 screen which makes the game screen extremely small.

After getting past this slight problem I started the actual game play. Fallout is a turn based RPG, much like Final Fantasy. You move an allowed distance and have a certian about of points to attack. I played around for a short while making my way out of the caves fighting tunnel rats. Playing the orginal Fallout felt very similar to the new Fallout 3. Even the way you attack is very similar that I quickly understood the method to play. It's amazing how different the two games appear but play so closely.

Next I wanted to play a good old style shooter. I found a few favorites, Unreal Tournament, and Unreal 2004. I loved Unreal Tournament since it was so fun and had really smart computer players, plus great levels. I finally settled upon Unread 2004 and will pick up Unreal Tournament next. To buy these games from GoG you download them, which is ok for older games since they are small around 300MB but for Unreal 2004 it's about 2GB. The download was corrupted the first time but after installing the GoG downloader, went very smooth the second time.

The install process was the same as Fallout, GoG has their own installer to insall the game. Start up was quick and I was playing right after. Playing about 2 hours, I haven't seen any issue and was able to play the game in my full resolution, big plus. Even while the game is 5 years old, still feels like a very fun game, and I'll be playing this next LAN party.

Overall my experience with GoG has been excellent. I still have older games in my collection but as computers get faster and OS changes, they don't run like they used to. GoG takes out the risk and makes the old games run with no changes. It's well worth the $10 to grab a old game and give it some more life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Long time with no update

It's been a while without an update. I haven't played WoW in a few months due to work and other interests. After some time at 76 on my paladin I'm planning to transfer to another server and play with new friends. The idea of dual boxing is fun but it's hard to keep up and have fun.

New laptop

After a long time with my old IBM Thinkpad I bought a new laptop. It has enough power to play games and run other applications at the same time. It's pretty fast and should last a few years.