Category Archives: Hardware

Laplink PC Mover migrates Windows Users to new machines

Moving users to new Windows machines is a pain. PC Mover helps automate the process, and it even assists when you are migrating users between Windows versions, such as upgrades from Windows XP to Windows 7.

Despite being lead to believe otherwise, PC Mover does not fully migrate OutLook accounts. Rather it will migrate the account server connection but it does not migrate the OutLook messages. I confirmed this with their technical support people.

You can migrate messages by copying the OutLook.PST file from the old machine to the new machine. I found I had to do this each time I migrated a user from Windows XP to Windows 7 on a new machine. Everything else, however, migrates smoothly. To do this:

1. Make sure the new machine is connected to the network.
2. If you can (or need to) register the computer with the Microsoft Domain Controller (under Control Panel, go to System ->Computer Name, and see that the computer is a member of the domain.
3. Log in to the new computer with the target user’s domain account. This will create a new user profile on the new computer.
4. Log off, and log in again as the Domain Administrator. This will give you rights to perform the migration on the new computer.
5. Install and run PC Mover on the new computer.
6. Log in as an administrator on the old computer.
7. Install PC Mover on the old computer. (I use a thumb drive for this).
8. Run PC Mover on the old computer. It will find the new computer on the network .
9. Choose the user’s domain account on the old computer for migration to the new computer. (This is the reason for step 3 above. Before doing this, I received an error message from PC Mover on the old computer saying that it can’t migrate the domain account. I’m presuming that is because the account didn’t exist on the new computer.)
10. In general, you don’t want to migrate old versions of applications that won’t be used on the new machine. So, these being Dells, I didn’t migrate things like Roxio CD Creator from the old machine to the new one. Also, if you already have applications installed (Office 2007?) on the new machine, you don’t need to migrate the whole application again.

One thing that is helpful is there is a rollback function, so if the migration doesn’t work as expected, you can roll back and try again with different settings.

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Tech Friday: Installing Windows Small Business Server 2011

I’ve received  a Dell T110 server, to install here at Microdesign GHQ.  I originally got it with two 250 gigabyte disks, I’ve been fooling around with various images and DVD disks trying several ways of installing it.  Some ideas:

1. SBS 2008 or 2011 requires a minimum of 8 megabytes of RAM, with twelve megabytes recommended for a production server. One reason I broke down and bought new hardware is that I had no recent Windows workstation that I could repurpose that could use more than 4 megabytes of RAM. I tested several candidates using the Crucial on-line tester. Then in desperation I went the Dell web site, and tried there as well. My latest workstation hardware, circa 2005, was too old. 

2. Being a cheapskate, I configured the server with two 250 gigabyte drives, thinking I’d mirror the drives. But it looks like Dell wants 9 megs or so for a utility partition, and that  the Windows installer won’t mirror anything before installation, so the operating system itself will go on a single drive. I’ll configure the second drive for data for starters, and then buy another one to mirror, so that I have mirrored data disks. This is what we ended up doing with the FreeNAS server that we’re using for student data; the O/S is on its own drive. Presumably, if that drive fails, then you could reinstall on a fresh drive, and the data remains intact on its own array. 

The only way around this predicament is to get a RAID controller that does all of the mirroring or RAID in hardware. The controller then “presents” the array as a single drive to the operating system.  

3. The higher RAM requirement also precluded playing with the O/S in a virtual machine… at least with Parallels.  This may be a mixed blessing. Even on dedicated hardware the installation is taking over an hour from DVD. So, in a VM the whole thing would be really slow.

4. Using the technique described last fall  for Windows embedded booting, I’m preparing a USB drive as an alternate boot media, just to see if that works, and if it does if it is any faster. This involves formatting the USB drive, and copying the bootloader files from the Windows setup DVD.

5. The downloaded .iso DVD image for Windows SBS 2011 is larger than the typical 4.7 gigabyte  single-sided DVD. I had to go to Staples and buy double-sided DVDs which hold 8.5 gigs. I never knew they existed, but I’m happy to see that both my Mac Superdrive, and the server DVD reader can read them.

FreeNAS: Automate Drive Mappings for Windows Users

This is the third in a series about FreeNAS, the free network attached storage application which allows you to create an inexpensive but highly capable network file server for backups, iTunes, and general file sharing. Our application is a server for student data. We want to give each student a secure folder in which to store files that they create and use when working in our student computer labs.  The two previous postings are:

Creating a FreeNAS server for student data

Adding students and creating folders 

Note that the first link picks up at the point that the FreeNAS server software has been installed on to server hardware with a minimal configuration. The FreeNAS web site has links to several tutorials as well as the official setup guide.

By the way, FreeNAS installs really nicely within a virtual machine so you can easily test it out. I’ve got it running in Parallels on my MacBook, with software RAID 5 providing redundant disk storage.

Mapping a drive to a student folder

Once I set up the student’s folder and account on the FreeNAS server, I wanted to be able to give them the opportunity to access it from any workstation in our student lab.  The cleanest way I could think of was to create an icon on the desktop which runs a script. The script does the following:
1. Asks for the student login name
2. Asks for the student’s password
3. Maps the H: drive to the student’s folder on the FreeNAS server.

Student folders are named exactly the same as the student login, and they all appear under a shared folder called “StudentData”.  The full path is /mnt/StudentData/.  So, when student Myron Kapoodle logs in with his user name mkapoodle, the script takes him to: 

/mnt/StudentData/mkapoodle

Thus, when the student accesses drive H:, they find themselves in their own folder. They can’t select a folder “above” their own, and they can’t access anyone else’s folder, even if they can see it when browsing around the network neighborhood.

The Script

' VBScript to map a network drive.
' Heavily borrowed from ....
' Guy Thomas http://computerperformance.co.uk/
' Larry Keyes http://www.techfornonprofits.com
' ------------------------------------------------------'
Option Explicit
Dim strDriveLetter, strRemotePath, strUser, strPassword
Dim objNetwork, objShell, objFSO
Dim CheckDrive, AlreadyConnected, intDrive
strUser=""
strPassword=""

' This section gets the name and password
strUser=InputBox("Enter your User Name")
strPassword=InputBox("Enter your Password")

' The section sets the variables.
strDriveLetter = "H:"
strRemotePath = "\\freenas\StudentData\" & strUser

' This sections creates two objects:
' objShell and objNetwork and counts the drives
Set objShell = WScript.CreateObject("WScript.Shell")
Set objNetwork = WScript.CreateObject("WScript.Network")
Set objFSO = WScript.CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject")
Set CheckDrive = objNetwork.EnumNetworkDrives()

If objFSO.DriveExists(strDriveLetter) Then
objShell.Popup "The H: Drive is already mapped"
objNetwork.RemoveNetworkDrive strDriveLetter
strRemotePath = "\\freenas\StudentData\" & strUser
objNetwork.MapNetworkDrive strDriveLetter, strRemotePath , false, strUser, strPassword
Else
strRemotePath = "\\freenas\StudentData\" & strUser
objNetwork.MapNetworkDrive strDriveLetter, strRemotePath , false, strUser, strPassword
End if

'Section which actually (re)names the Mapped Drive to eliminate naming problem.
Set objShell = CreateObject("Shell.Application")
objShell.NameSpace(strDriveLetter & "\").Self.Name = strUser
Wscript.Echo "Check : "& strDriveLetter & " for " & strUser
WScript.Quit

There is some extra stuff in there that attempts to fix an issue that appeared in Windows 7, where if the drive mapping is reused, it shows up with the name of the previous user.

Our student workstations have a single “student” local account.  Every student logs in to that account when they use the workstation. There are no individual user profiles. In some cases I have the student account log in automatically, and I’ll probably do this on all machines that use the FreeNAS network so that a student doesn’t have to log in twice…once to the desktop and once with their own user name and password on the FreeNAS server.

This script should be installed on each Windows workstation, with a desktop icon to appear on the desktop of the student account.

Two other observations and questions:

1. Obviously you can simply map a drive from the command line using Start->Run->CMD, and then at the prompt  type MAP H: /freeNAS/StudentData/mkapoodle.

2. I searched all over for a more elegant way to have a screen that came up that would ask for the name and password and then make the call to create the drive mapping. First I looked at C#, then, because Visual Basic has a “shell” command, I switched to VB. However that required a full-blown Windows installation of the .exe file, as well as a batch file which was called by the VB program. I finally decided I could live with two windows popping up; one asking for the name and another for the password.

End of the Experiment: Doomed SX280.

After two tries with eBay Dell SX280s, I’m giving up. A second one arrived a day or two ago, and it doesn’t boot, even to the BIOS setup. After researching this it looks like it might involve capacitors on the motherboard. The first eBay seller promptly refunded my money and told me to keep the unit.

The second seller also refunded payment promptly and requested that I send the unit back. I won’t be able to try the capacitor replacement fix.

Out of three purchases, one works fine, and two were dead on arrival. Not a particularly great record, and I think I will end this experiment and go back to looking at purchasing at the Dell Outlet, or even new machines.

I just configured a low-end new Optiplex for $371. Of interest is this does not include any floppy, CD, or DVD drive. I added an extra 1 meg of RAM for a total of 2 megs, and kept the Windows Vista home OS with the idea of replacing with a license that I have here for Windows 7 and/or Ubuntu Linux.

So, the upshot is we’re still looking at a minimum of around $500 for a basic Dell desktop machine which includes a flat screen. The hardware guys recommend Samsung and Viewsonic flat screens.

A new stock analysis service called Trefis has this to say about the Dell company.

Dell is known primarily for its product line of desktop and notebook PCs, printers, and PC displays. However, much of Dell’s value comes from higher profitability businesses, such as managed services and consulting, through which Dell provides business customers with services, such as desktop outsourcing or IT call center support.

We foresee Dell contemplating an exit from the desktops, printers and displays business.

Hmm.. They calculate that desktop machines are roughly 2% of the company value, laptops about 20%, (ten times the desktop figure!) and that the largest proportion of value comes from Dell’s acquisition of Perot Systems in “business services”.

The $30.00 Windows XP Computer.

Based on Jeff Duntemann’s suggestion about the SX270 I went on eBay and bought both an SX270 and an SX280. I bid and got the 270 for $30.00, however, the vendor required a shipping fee of $30.00 for UPS ground which I think is a bit of a ripoff. Still, $60.00 isn’t bad (potentially) for a working more-or-less modern computer. For those who have more time than money, who want to try this route, here are a few additional tips.

1. All eBay Dell SX270s are not equal. Many are stripped of their hard drives. This is presumably for security reasons. If yours does have a drive, it will probably have been wiped, so it will need an operating system.

2. Many of the SX270s have what is called a COA sticker included. Sometimes this is simply described as “COA included”. This gives you a Windows license key. You still need to be able to install a copy of Windows, so you need to have a CD lying around, and typically this needs to be a single user copy. (I tried installing using the media from our site license. This wouldn’t accept the COA as it the one on the sticker wasn’t a “volume license” number. I also tried using an old Microsoft Action Pack version of the Windows media and this didn’t want to accept the number either. All this nonwithstanding the fact that I *do* have a legitimate Windows XP COA number to input during the installation process. The best solution proved to be a Dell Windows XP “operating system reinstallation disk” of which I have several lying around from previous new Dell machine purchases.

3. Both the SX270 ad SX280 have power bricks, similar or larger to those that you find on inexpensive ink jet printers and laptops. These are by no means generic and you need to be sure you have the right one to fit the machine. The eBay listing may or may not include the power brick….if it doesn’t you’ll be out another $10-$30.00. I was unlucky, but managed to get a Buy-it-Now brick for $10.00 (plus shipping of, I think $6.00). So, my $30.00 computer now costs $73.00.

4. My machine arrived in reasonably good shape; but was dusty. The CD drive wouldn’t read a CD correctly. I bought a CD cleaner disk from Amazon, and that seemed to fix the reading problem; but if it hadn’t the PITA factor would have gone up considerably as I’d have to replace the CD drive.

5. Once Windows was installed, I downloaded the network drivers from the Dell site, using another machine… and installed these on the SX270.

Then there is the inevitable faffing about trying to find video drivers for the unit. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a utility that would contain all of the drivers necessary, and that would install them in one batch file? Anyway, according to the discussion on the Dell web site, drivers should be installed in the following order:

  1. System driver file…either desktop or laptop. (I never found this for the SX270)
  2. Chipset (motherboard driver) requires a reboot.
  3. Video driver. requires a reboot.
  4. Network driver (already got that, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to download directly to the SX270)
  5. Audio drivers.

When Windows was first installed, the machine wouldn’t produce any screen resolution higher than 600×480. Once the video driver was installed, it went to 1600×1200 automatically. Pretty dramatic.

Looking at the specifications on the Dell site, it says that this machine is actually an SX270N. I’m not sure what the difference is between an N and a non-N.

The fan is noisy. Too noisy. Like the wind in Wuthering Heights. The fan noise diminished when I placed the unit on end, with the vent holes in the top. I’ll also attempt to peel off a label that the bonehead vendor stuck on the top thereby covering about 20% of the ventilation holes….maybe that will improve the air circulation and keep the machine cooler.

Tech Friday: The Forgotten Art of Scripting

Well, maybe it hasn’t been been forgotten by everybody, but it has been a long time since I looked at scripting, which might be considered another name for “accessible programming for casual users”.

In the beginning was the shell script.. any of several flavors of command line languages that manipulated UNIX operating system shells. These included component programs with funny names like AWK, and SED that allowed the manipulation of data and (especially) text files. And they all still work and and are used. I’m personally fond of grep, which is a sort of search engine on steroids available on any UNIX variant (like the Mac OS X)

Then there was the DOS batch file, which appeared in the earliest versions of DOS and has been carried up through all versions of Windows with the availability of the Windows Scripting Host. It has now has morphed into the PowerShell… but you can still write and execute a simple batch file if you want. Great stuff for network administrators.

Then there is JavaScript, which has nothing to do with Java, used for calculations and manipulations of web pages. I wrote my TimeCard web page program in JavaScript; and it works, and it it is fast, but working with the language was kind of a mess.

Why bother?

The later versions of the Tandberg Codian Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) for videoconferencing includes an XML-RPC interface to allow programmers to interact with the box without going through the provided web interface. The latter, by the way, is actually quite good. Our idea is to figure out the basic sub-set of functionality that we usually use 90% of the time, and build a custom interface for that 90%.

XML-RPC is, (it appears) to be a languishing standard for having one machine issue calls to another machine, and allow the second machine to execute commands. The reason I call this “apparently languishing” is that Google searches for XML-RPC turn up documents mostly from the early part of the decade. Also, there are few good tutorials on how to get things to work… right now I’m winging it using an (excellent) free client for the Mac which sends XML-RPC commands to the target box from a Mac workstation. Still, XML-RPC is what our box expects to receive…and for the moment at least, that’s what it will get. Once we’ve figured out what to send…we’ll figure out how to send it, ultimately using any scripting language that will work, but starting with AppleScript, which is native to OS X and which comes with an editor and dictionary built in.

Tech Friday: Video-The Right Tool For The Job

Two Stories: 

I

I’ve been participating in a entrepreneur boot camp of sorts which requires us to create slide show presentations to introduce our company. Because the leader is using an older Dell laptop with Microsoft Office 2003 installed, we are required to create these presentations to run on PowerPoint 2003 on her laptop. After the presentations have been created, our team was asked to record a voice-over to accompany these slides. This was recorded using Audacity on a Windows machine using a Samson condenser microphone with a USB interface. We did it in a couple of takes, and listened to the playback. All seemed well, although the team expressed some trepidation at attempting to synchronize the playback of the audio with the individual slides, a finicky process which would take some hours.  So the question is, why not use the sound recording function in PowerPoint 2007, (Windows) or Keynote ’09 (Mac)? 

II

We’ve been engaged in a study comparing a 15 week exercise program delivered in three “modes”, 1.) a live class at the ‘Y’, 2.) an interactive version delivered over the internet using multi-point two-way videoconferencing, and 3.) a DVD version of the program.  As part of our telemedicine project we had a contractor create a version of our program for delivery on DVD. We shot great footage with professional audio, lighting, and camera work. The footage was edited to create a 15 week version of our program.  Once the raw edits were created, we sent them off to a DVD guru who used one of those $1,200 authoring programs to put it together.  The result was OK, but non-intuitive. The users of the DVD basically hated it and several dropped out of the study.  
Now, a year has past and the study subjects who participated in the live session and those who took the interactive tele-version of the program want to have a DVD version of the program as a reference so that they can continue their exercise. We decided to provide them with a free DVD, using clips recorded from the telemedicine session. I combined these using iMovie ’09 and the result is better than the original professional DVD. (!)  I subsequently bought David Pogue’s Missing Manual book on iMovie and iDVD and am looking forward to re-doing our original DVD as well as create some promotional material for sharing on the web.  
Now, video editing isn’t my favorite pastime, but it is certainly no worse than grant-writing, and if the results are near-professional, then why not take advantage of what has really become a disruptive technology? 
On the other hand, here is an example of Eva Sollberger’s Stuck in Vermont video blog. Eva is a one-person video production company. She shoots, edits and publishes. This particular episode is about 6-8th graders creating their own news show.  It sure beats Channel 5 eyewitness news.