Tag Archives: Hardware

Refurbished Desktop Computers

Refurbs are for when you have more time than money. I’m not sure about the exact figure, but in many cases, I think I’ve ended up spending several hours per unit getting a refurbished computer back online after a hard drive failure, or just having to spend hours updating Windows and Office so that I’m confident getting the machine on the network.

We got several “really good deals” from NewEgg, for refurbished Lenovo desktop computers at $214.00. These appeared to be of “office quality”, included Windows 7 Pro, and were nicely finished. Unfortunately, we have had 2/3 of the Western Digital Blue hard drives start to fail at some point. This has created no end of extra heartache for the users and an enormous amount of work for the IT staff.

NewEgg has been fine on returns, however, providing UPS shipping labels, and RMA procedures over the web.

OK….so much for NewEgg.  We’re looking at alternatives.  (we have more time than money).

Techsoup has Dell refurbished computers that are prepared by a third party. For example:


Dell OptiPlex 755 Core 2 Duo Windows 7 Desktop 2.0 Ghz – 2.6 Ghz 
$286.00 
Min of 160Gb drive
Min of 2Gs RAM 
Windows 7 Professional 64 bit. 
Also includes: 
Office 2010
Adobe Flash,Reader 

One advantage here is that if you need licenses for Windows 7 and Office, they are included in the price. You would spend the $286.00 on those if you bought at retail, and maybe quite a lot less if you have a Microsoft Open, agreement. But, it like getting the hardware free.

The Dell Outlet looks promising with several machines in the $315-$390 range which still include Windows 7 as opposed to Windows 8, and have at least 500Gb drives, and 4 Gigs of RAM. These have more up-to-date processors than the Techsoup machines, and are certainly not as old. Most Dell Outlet machines were either not delivered, or were taken back within the warrenty period.

I’ve had solid results with Dell Outlet computers at the workstation and server level; mixed results with standard desktop machines, and a real disaster with older SX-series Optiplexes.  The best seem to be the larger ones; towers or mini-towers. Smaller machines, “mini-desktops” may have suffer from the suboptimal cooling, and the older components may have reached their design end-of-life earlier than those installed in a larger case.

One thing we have often found is that dual monitors are wonderful, and this is something that I would recommend for anyone as a matter of course. If you need an extra monitor card, these can be found from NewEgg starting at around $35.00. Best to wait until you have received the machine, because there can be variations in the slots, and the available adapter space that aren’t evident from the web page.

On the Mac side, I’ve purchased several Macbooks, iPods, iPads, from the Apple Store. These have always worked flawlessly. The Refurb store has a 21.5 inch iMac for $1099, which is the model from September 2013. The cost is only $200 or so less that of a new, similar iMac. It includes 8 gigs of RAM, and 1 terabyte hard drive, and of course the Mavrick OS, and iWork. If you’ve got more money than time, and just want to get to work, this might be the way to go.

Spicy Server Pix

Shocking! Server Interior Revealed!

Click on the images to see them full size.

Here’s a picture of my new Dell T110 server, with the cover off.

Here’s a little more detail. You can see the two drives mounted on the left hand side, with two conveniently vacant drive bays for a couple additional SATA drives. Upper middle are the four memory slots, each filled with a 2 megabyte chip for a total of eight megabytes. All the black stuff on the right is the shroud covering the heat sink. The unit is absolutely silent.

Finally, here it is in the final configuration. I’ve got an older Maxell external USB 250 megabyte drive as a backup device. The Small Business Server 2011 backup is much improved over Windows backup software that came with earlier Windows server software…almost as good as the Mac Time Machine.

This is the first purpose-bought server that I’ve bought in more than ten years for my business. I had a couple in the nineties. Then for two or three iterations, I’d buy Dell Precision workstations to use as my personal workstation, and then I’d bump them down to be a server. All of these machines have been very reliable. I even used one of the Optiplex GX270 desktops as a production server for more than six months.

Tech Friday: More on Windows Small Business Server 2011

So, after fiddling for a week, I decided to commit, and make the SBS 2011 my real office server, at least for awhile. Amazing how much tweaking is required. Out of the box it doesn’t work out of the box, and despite the presence of numerous wizards and checklists, I find that it requires a fair amount of network knowledge to get things up and running. Ideas:

1. Under the covers, SBS 2011 uses Windows Server 2008, and Microsoft Exchange 2010.

2. In its default state, SBS assumes it will control everything, even unto DHCP. DHCP is usually enabled by default on most routers. It is the function that assigns an internal IP address to each workstation as it comes on the network. I prefer that the function stay with the router, so if the server is off for some reason, workstations can still get a legal IP address to be able to go out on to the internet. For the moment, I’ve acquiesced and given that function to SBS.

3. Since I’m planning to run Exchange, I needed to have a domain assigned to my SBS server. I have a fixed outward facing IP address from Comcast, my internet service provider. I assigned a “third level domain name” to my SBS server. This is often done for individual machines within a domain. So, for example of your company’s domain is kettleprises.com, you mail server might be mail.kettleprises.com, and your sbs server might be sbs.kettleprises.com. Third level domain names do not usually cost extra. I then configured a DNS server on the SBS box using the assigned third-level domain. So far, I haven’t been able to find my domain mapping using nslookup, so I’m a little worried that something is awry.

4. The above is not to be confused with the “windows domain”, which is a single name for the local area network’s SBS machine. I named mine ghq. SBS then translates this to ghq.local which is assigned to the server’s internal ip address.

5. The next issue, is to get the network workstations connected to the server. Before doing that, the help file suggests creating the user accounts on the server. Once you do that, you can go to the individual workstations, and run the web browser, and try to find http://connect. If this is successful, then you’ll see the following screen:

This is only a link to download a “launcher.exe” file which is a script which connects the computer to the network. If there are local user profiles available, it allows you to choose one to migrate to a domain account. (Again, showing essentially that the SBS developers assume that this is the first server of a one-server network, and you would only be migrating local workstation accounts to domain accounts anyway.)

If you can’t bring up the web page, then something is misconfigured, somewhere. It took me several tries to make sure everything was working as expected. I thought the last loose end was the fact that my third level domain name hadn’t propagated yet, but between the time I started writing and the time I’ve finished, it now appears under NSLOOKUP.

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.

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”.