Category Archives: IT Management


After more than two years, a former and much loved non-profit client called for some help in sorting out their donor database. That’s another story which may be worth telling, but I was interested in seeing how they have weathered the economic downturn, and how some of the networking decisions that we took some years ago have held up. They have a main office and several field offices scattered among three counties. They have about 55 employees.

  1. By the time I had left, most of field offices had a broadband connection. That work was completed, and each office now has a DSL broadband connection, either from a local ISP, or from Fairpoint (the company who bought the Verizon landline and consumer data service in the three northern N.E. states). After working with it for a couple days, I’d say performance is OK.. although today, curiously, there was a twenty minute outage.
  2. With broadband available, they how have remote access software going to EVERY computer in EVERY office, as well as their central file server. Much desktop maintenance that required an on-site visit, can now be accomplished over the wire.
  3. Electronic mail accounts are hosted by the local internet service provider. People use Outlook or Outlook Express as their desktop eMail client….and access their eMail account when away from the office via webmail.
  4. They refreshed their desktop hardware with Dell Optiplexes that were donated by a local large employer. Although the machines are hand-me-downs, they are more than adequate for eMail, web browsing, and running the database application. The donor also gave them several laser printers that were only a few years old. Everyone is running XP, with Office 2007. (Without prompting, they said that Office 2007 is fine.) They have Norton Anti-Virus which is managed from the file server. No less than three of the staff said, in casual conversation… “well, I do have a Mac at home”. I nodded toward my Macbook, running Parallels, wondering if this turns out to be a longer term gig, if I will need to get a new Windows laptop.
  5. Their Dell file server is probably going on five years; but it is built like a tank, with RAID drives, and the original HP backup tape system. They have HP Procurve 2124 ethernet switches, and HP continues to keep replacing them under a lifetime warranty, when the fans go bad. I think we’ve replaced two or three switches with this client, and a couple of them with other clients. It takes one phone call.
  6. Several old battles were, well, old, if not forgotten. They have made their peace with a state-mandated performance data application which gave us all fits for years. The Executive Director attributes this success to attentive support from the state agency which mandated the system.
  7. If there is one especially popular non-business application being used by the staff, it is streaming audio. In fact, today, the first indication that there was a glitch in the internet connection was when a staff member came in and asked why her “radio” wasn’t working.

In short, it Just Works. I think this is attributable to the existing staff who have educated themselves over the years, and new staff who have come on board with full expectations of a functioning network and desktop workstation and how to use it. Add in some longstanding support from management who recognize the value of investing in technology and training, and the efforts of the current part-time network manager who keeps it all humming.

NPower – Network Documentation Template

NPower Seattle has a Network Documentation Template which is in Word. This is a great start for documenting your computer network. The file is called SBS2003template.doc which suggests it might have been modified by one supplied by Microsoft, and it includes inserted Visio files to show the networking diagrams. If you are a MS shop this will work out of the box. If not, you can easily modify it in OpenOffice, or Pages, or whatever. The object of documenting your network is not necessarily perfection…but to have something to give you a clue when things start going haywire.

Call Centers from Hell and Customer Contempt

Especially during a recession, it amazes me the utter contempt company call centers show toward their customers. I spend a lot of time on calls with technical support people, and it remains as irritating as ever to get to them. Once I get a live person, however, I can usually calm down.

I really hate hearing that “This call may be monitored or recorded for training or quality control purposes”. Especially right at the outset of a call. Maybe for my broker… (what broker?) when giving financial instructions. For all the “training” that is going on sitting in phone tree hell doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. And quality control purposes? It makes me uneasy that I’m being recorded at all.

On hold, I really hate hearing every 15 seconds that “We appreciate your patience, and thank you for waiting during this brief delay”. and “We know that you are very busy, we appreciate your call”. Or worse, blabbing on about the web site, or the new product, or alternate ways to contact us, or whatever. These constant interruptions makes it impossible to concentrate on other work while waiting. What ever happened to playing Vivaldi and not inserting commercial messages?

While there are “secret” phone numbers floating around the internet for various services, I can’t imagine a company would want these internal numbers published; they would get spammed quickly.

So, I’m holding for Fairpoint right now, and have had 5 dumb “Thank you for holding messages” in the previous minute.
“Thank you for holding, your call will be answered in just a moment”
“We know your time is important, and appreciate your patience while on hold”
“Every effort is being made to ensure that your wait is as short as possible… Thank you”
“Thank you for holding, someone will be right with you.”
“Your call is very important to us. Thank you for waiting and bearing with us during this brief delay”.

And then the cycle starts again. All this accompanied by ear-splitting muzak (tacky fake FM-synthesized saxophones.)

Odds and Sods

Going Aerial

Smashing Magazine has a collection of images taken from above and links to additional collections and tips for aerial photography.

There are a couple of tutorials over at Make Magazine’s web site for kite aerial photography, and photography on a pole. Both units use a similar yoke-mounted camera assembly that is controlled by servos. In fact, if you made the yoke once, you could probably use it for both applications.

Old Dogs/New Tricks Department

Jeff Duntemann gets Ubuntu. His Contrapositive Diary has now been moved over to a WordPress platform. I miss the old single page with the spiral-bound notebook illustration.

I’ve been working with MindManager for the Mac. This is available in version 8 for Windows, and version 7 for the Mac. Version 7 works fine; while not elaborate, it is quick to learn, and strikes me as an excellent example of “less is more”. More ideas for mind mapping are on Chuck Frey’s blog and he has a useful e-Book with lots of ideas. One suggestion from the book; when showing a mind map diagram to someone, don’t call it a “mind map”. My most elaborate map to date was the proposal outline of our NIH grant application discussed a couple posts ago.

Question of the Day: “Why is there no Visio for the Mac?” Or maybe a better way of asking the question, “What is the equivalent of Visio on the Mac?

Non-Technical Question of the Day: Watching the follies surrounding the confirmation of Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary, I have to ask, what is a guy who underpaid $34,000 in income tax using Turbo-Tax and doing his own taxes in the first place? Oh, and why did this happen to get resolved shortly before his nomination to the post of treasury secretary, even though the years when he didn’t pay were back in the first part of the decade? $34,000 is still a respectable salary in my neck of the woods… how much was the guy making in gross salary to be able to owe that much and then not pay it?

MobileMe – Synchronizing Macs

I’ve been intending to sketch out my whole synchronization scheme which keeps multiple applications synched between two Macs and the rest of the world, but it is so complicated that just documenting it has made me want to rethink. In the interim, I noticed yesterday that a bunch of changes that I had put into my address book on the MacBook didn’t get synched to the iMac, and after a lengthy chat with Apple’s MobileMe tech support the answer appeared to be nothing more than logging out of MobileMe on the laptop and then logging back in.

One trick with synching with MobileMe is to strip down the applications, so that you are only trying to sync one thing at a time when troubleshooting. Right now I’ve only got the contacts synching.

If one forgot that you can actually log into your MobileMe account from a web browser, one should be reminded of that helpful suggestion, as you can check whether your sync changes reach the the “cloud”. Obviously (in hindsight) if you make a change in iCal on one machine, and do a sync, the changes should appear in the copy of your files in the cloud, before any other machine can sync and download the changes.

Windows vs. Linux – Open Source vs. Commercial

I got sucked in to a bit of back and forth on our local Linux/Unix list a couple days ago and wrote:

Ten years ago I was consulting for a multi-national education non-profit, and I discussed with the systems manager the notion of using open source…in particular I was talking about replacing their Windows 2000/NT servers, with Linux. This would have been a logistical wrench, not least because they had several client/server applications that used SQL-Server as the back end. His point was that as an educational institution, they got such good discounts on any proprietary software that the amount spent on the software was a miniscule percentage of their IT budget. So, there was no economic benefit, and certainly no performance benefit that justified such a change.

Later that year I was doing an inventory of their machines at one of the european sites and couldn’t find the terminal server box. Turns out this was a Linux box running VMC or something and it had been bricked up in a wall during a recent renovation, and been merrily running, unseen, for several months.

So, the moral for me was, use what works. At the time I actually got them to go from running four O/S’s in the organization to two, Windows, and the aforementioned Linux. We dumped Macs in one site, and Novell in another, and my advice to subsequent clients was to run one and only one OS in the organization.

I’m happy to say that they didn’t all run Windows.

VoIP Supply offers SIP trunking

I was intrigued to see that VoIP Supply, the folks that sold me my Trixbox and my Polycom SIP phones are now offering SIP trunking and data services.

Don’t know how this stacks up against suppliers like VoicePulse. For one thing the pricing model is slightly different, with VoIP Supply looking for a minimum $25.00 per month, but with unlimited local and long-distance calling in the lower 48 states. VoicePulse, at least the version for Asterisk/Trixbox, was on a pre-paid model but charges 2 cents or so per minute.

What about the quality of these calls though? Maybe I’m just cranky, but I’ve had literally dozens of calls from vendors in the past year that clearly were low-quality VoIP calls. I would be appalled if my own calls to my clients and prospects sounded like many of these calls.

In one case, I was (supposedly) working with a sophisticated and highly-paid consultant who was using either Vonage or the Comcast VoIP. The guy couldn’t get out of his own way…I just couldn’t understand him, over multiple calls. How are we supposed to conduct business this way? And, where is the savings per month, at $25.00 or $125 or even $1025 per month that the person is supposedly saving, when as a result a client drops this person, after originally looking forward to a multi-thousand dollar contract? False economy.

Bottom Line: The landline isn’t dead yet. Use VoiP for long-distance calls to friends and family, and non-critical overseas calls. If there is any question, during a VoIP call, have a back-up landline available.

And if you have contracted out any functions to a call center (perish the thought…my local newspaper has done this to verify authorship of letters to the editor), be sure you get yourself on the receiving end of such calls to assess the quality. Nothing turns off customers and prospects more quickly then struggling with foreign-based tech support, heavily accented, with stupid calling scripts, and bad sound quality.

My Dimming Vista

With all the controversy on Microsoft Vista, here is my contribution to the pile.

Four weeks ago I was going to write a post entitled something like Despite Almost Universal Opprobrium, Windows Vista Works Just Fine for Me or something similar. Sure, I had spent a lot of time futzing with the betas almost two years ago. By the time I installed the first RTM version in November of 2006 with bad results I decided to give up for awhile. But recent first experience of a production copy seemed to belie all of bad press and complaints that I heard from the pundocracy. Examples:

1. Friend buys inexpensive Acer laptop. Comes with Vista Home. Works flawlessly with everything we could throw at it.
2. I installed a copy of Vista Business on my MacBook in a virtual machine provided by Parallels. Works fine, so far. Even with only 512K allotted for the virtual machine.
3. Additional Windows Vista Business licenses installed on our Mini-ITX boxes seemed to work pretty well. There were occasional crashes, but no detectable or replicable pattern.

Then we installed Enterprise on our boxes through a site license and all hell broke loose. What I can’t figure out is how much of a difference there is between Enterprise and Business and Home, other than things that are left out. Perhaps it is the footprint? (We’re running only in 1 meg of RAM).

So after spending, no kidding, over a hundred hours on this, we’ve decided to go back to XP. And there everything is solid as a rock again.

We have said it before, and we’ll say it again. In a production situation, i.e. your network, use the available time to upgrade everyone to Windows XP service pack 2. Microsoft may not make XP available forever, although it keeps pushing out the end-of-life phase for XP as Vista fails to gain traction.

More specifically, our main problem is a driver crash or incompatibility between our application, and a hardware driver on both Vista Business and Vista Enterprise.

However, I may get shot for saying this, but I prefer the Vista look and feel (even without Aero Glass over the Macintosh OSX’s “east-European-behind-the-iron-curtain” look. And Vista is a vast improvement over the XP cartoon look.