Poor Technology Decisions

One of the most frustrating situations that I run into as a technology evangelist is observing people make poor technology decisions. As a tech guy, I want to advocate for the best technology solution possible, but you always have to consider who will ultimately use the technology, how much will it cost to implement, and over time how will it perform. In truth there is no perfect technology solution, all solutions have their negatives and positives; the best that you can do is choose something which satisfies all the requirements and that people are comfortable with. However, before you run out and spend your budget, consider the following to see if your technology choices are the right ones for you.

Technology Solutions For People Problems

Ironically, technology cannot fix everything, but that does not stop people from trying to use it in situations where it does not fit. The prime example of this is when you have a group of people that need to communicate but choose not to. You usually find that for personal reasons people do not get along and this causes the process to breakdown. All problems break down into two categories: you either have a broken process or you have a people problem. Most decision makers tend to ignore the people problem and focus on the broken process and this is a big mistake. In this scenario, any technology decision will fail because the people problem was never resolved. If people do not get along and stand in the way of a great process, the process will still break down. The best thing to do is to focus on the people problem first and allow the people that will work the process to be part of the solution. Involve everyone and communicate, communicate, eventually the solution will become obvious to everyone.

The Perfect Technology

When choosing a solution from a vendor, you will always get a sales pitch about how wonderful this solution will be for you and how it is so customizable that you cannot afford not to choose it. No technology just works. Everything is designed to work a certain way, and it takes time to learn new technology no matter how awesome it is. Do not buy the sales pitch, instead be prepared to spend significant amount of time when adopting new technology and balance it against how productive or how profitable it will make your process and business.

Single Vision

All of our advances in society have come about because someone had the great vision and determination to create something, even if it was by accident. It is those achievements that propel us forward. When it comes to technology we stand on the shoulders of these great visionaries and we sometimes lose perspective because of our admiration for such and such person. As much as I love all things made by Apple, I need to retain some perspective. Just because I love Mac OS X, does not mean everyone has to love it the same way. The right technology solutions are not always the ones that I want. Ask yourself, does it make sense to buy an entire rack server or will something smaller work just as well? As technology advocates we love our toys, but you want to be careful that not all your technology choices are your technology choices.

Avoiding The Status Quo

The tech world runs in cycles. At one time, the network server was cool, then all of a sudden it is not as trendy, and now it is back. As a decision maker, you have to study the trends and know when it is time to jump off and adopt something outside the status quo. Sometimes the new trend is not going to end well, I’m thinking mostly about those cheap netbooks that everyone was so enamored with a few years ago. On the other side, the tablet is something that just works and you will need to include them in your strategic plans. You want to be an early adaptor who picks sound and effective technologies and yes that is a lot harder than it sounds.

Customize Gmail To Look Like Outlook

Gmail LogoIf you are making the switch to Gmail, the first thing that stands out is that although Gmail is very responsive, it is pretty unattractive web application to use. There are plenty of modifications you can make to your browser to make Gmail look better, but I thought I would focus on modifications that strictly work in all browsers. Here are a three modifications that I think improve upon the standard Gmail interface.

Gmail Gear

  • Click the Gear icon and select: Comfortable
  • Click the Gear icon and click Settings: Labs: Preview Pane switch to Enable.
  • Click the Gear icon and click Themes: under Color Themes select High Contrast.

AVG File Server Edition

avg file server editionA couple of months ago, I decided it was time to build my own home file server instead of purchasing cheap servers from Dell and HP. I was never quite happy with what I got. The Dell boxes were too loud and the HP one was too underpowered. A build-your-own server is not exactly cheap either, so if saving money is your top concern, I would probably recommend against it. My new home file server ended up being exactly what I wanted, a fast Intel Xeon based server that is super quiet and easily upgradeable. I’ll usually get bored and decide to change something, for the sake of giving me something to do. Now on to the software side of things, I had decided to put Windows Server on this machine. My previous server was Windows 2003, and as much as it was functional, the operating system was starting to show it’s age. With time, Windows 2003 is harder to install on newer hardware. It does not support SATA drives without specifying a driver and my particular version was not 64-bit. Who uses only 4GB of RAM these days anyway? The time had come for an upgrade. The choice came down between Windows Home Server 2011, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2012 Essentials. I know some of you reading this, are shaking your heads right now and wondering why pay for another expensive Microsoft OS, when there are excellent choices like FreeBSD, Ubuntu, RedHat, and others. I did look into setting up Ubuntu Server, but for some reason Ubuntu no longer fully supports WebMin, which is something that I thought would be something I would like to have. The other choice was to go with Windows 7 or Windows 8, but honestly, I really prefer to have a file server os.

Microsoft is a company in decline these days. Their consumer products are not really cool or exciting anymore. Where Microsoft still shines, I think is in their file server and enterprise products. Though they are expensive, their ease of use and feature set is still hard to match. Windows Server is still a great server, but the Microsoft way of doing things is looking harder to justify in terms of dollars. For home servers, Microsoft threw consumers a bone with Windows Home Server, but they never really invested themselves. I think a $200 operating system is just about right for this market, however, Windows Server 2012 Essentials is not that product. It is around $400 to buy an OEM license and so it is hard for me to recommend to average home users. Nonetheless this is the product I chose, just because Windows 2008 Server was not cheaper and I figure Essentials would end up supporting my hardware better than an older os.

Once I got past the Microsoft restrictions of Windows 2012 Server Essentials (there are quite a few), I came upon my other problem, which is the focus of this posting. You can’t really run Windows without some sort of antivirus product. The problem was that for Essentials, a what is suppose to be a cheap home business server, there was literally no antivirus that supported it! My preferred antivirus for Windows is ESET NOD32, but since Essentials is a server product, ESET wants you to buy a business license. I don’t understand why there are so few choices for antivirus products when it comes to Windows Essentials and Windows Home Server. These products are aimed at home users and small home office users and yet, every vendor points you to a 5 user business bundle. With ESET not being an option price wise, I started to look elsewhere.

Symantec had just released a version of Symantec Endpoint that supported Windows 2012 Server and you can actually buy one license from their website store. Symantec offers two versions of Endpoint: the normal enterprise version that can be managed centrally using their Symantec Endpoint Server product and a cloud version, which can be managed from a website that Symantec hosts. The cloud client did not support Windows 2012 servers, so that was a non starter. You can install the regular client and if you never install the Endpoint Server software, it still works fine. My experience with Endpoint was the same as what I have in the workplace, this product really is too complicated and slows down your machine. After working with it for a month, I ended up no longer using it. There was an issue with Endpoint that caused my Microsoft backups to fail.

Avira is another product that I tried to use. From my research, it seems Avira is the new ESET. It has a growing customer fan base and the price is affordable for regular Windows users. For business users, you still have to buy 5 licenses and although I found Avira as low as $22 per license, I still did not need 5 licenses. Most of my other machines at home are Macs and the only vendor I found that had a good Mac and Windows solution combined was ESET with their 5-user Family pack, but this does not cover file servers! I found Avira’s interface to be simple to use, but still preferred ESET NOD32. Overall, I think Avira would be my third choice, behind ESET and AVG.

This finally brings me to AVG. My initial research was that AVG has its critics, but overall, it is a good antivirus product. They offer several choices of products and one specific product for Windows file servers: AVG File Server Edition. The 2013 product line share the new Metro inspired tile interface. It is a little dark for my taste, I don’t think the color scheme is at all attractive for a desktop application. The main screen is pretty simple. On the right you have a Computer tile that you can click on to give you more options and information in regards to the computer. Underneath this there is a Remote Admin tile; AVG has remote admin options similar to all business class antivirus products, but you never need to bother with these if you just are running one server. On the top left, you have links to Reports, Support, and Options. In the screenshot below, I have 10 reports that I have not viewed. These are mostly your typical, “Your last scan occurred on…” and “Your definitions were updated on…”.

avg main screen

In general the interface is very simple and effective. Antivirus is suppose to get out of the way of your work and when you do want to look at it, it should be informative and easy to read. AVG does this quite well, except the dark color scheme, I really can’t find too much fault with the interface.

When you click on the Computer tile, you get the Computer protection screen. Here you can see that the Antivirus is enabled, access more Settings and view Stats.

avg options screen

Performance wise, AVG did not slow down my file server like Symantec Endpoint. It scans files faster than Avira. It is still an antivirus, so there is a difference between running Windows without it and with it. When using file explorer my folders would open instantly, with AVG, you do notice a slight hesitation, so you are sacrificing some small percentage of performance for security.

Price wise, AVG File Server Edition is $40 for a single license, which you can buy directly from AVG. There is no annoying 5 business user license requirement. You can also find it cheaper by buying it through another reseller. I was able to find a great deal through the Dell Software store.

Other antivirus that I wanted to try were Bitdefender, Avast!, and Vipre. The most common reasons for not choosing these vendors and others, was the lack of information on Windows 2012 Server support, the 5 user business license requirement, standalone price, and the general lack of trailware versions available for business editions.

I really can’t see myself using any other antivirus other AVG File Server Edition. No other vendor provides a reasonable solution for home server customers at this time.

The US Bandwidth Problem

Over the last few years, I have become somewhat of a politician, when it comes to speaking about the Internet and the undeniable bandwidth problem we have in the US. The difficulty I ran into multiple times was that it is hard to convince people that not having enough bandwidth is a problem at all. Bandwidth is something that most people just don’t think about. It is like breathing, you never realize you need air, until you are deprived of it. It has only been within the last couple of years that people are starting to wake up to the limitations of low performing internet connections. This has been brought on by consumer usage of more internet connected devices, from the smart phone to the iPad. As these devices tap into more and more of the wireless capacity of home routers and cell phone towers, they begin to push the limitations of the land line technology that usually provides the internet connection. This includes T-1 lines, DSL modems, ethernet, and fiber technologies.

The problem then becomes two-fold. We have a capacity issue for individual consumers wanting to communicate and for our institutions and businesses that want to provide better services. With low performing internet, we end up with schools that can’t use technology to teach our children, businesses that can’t provide the type of services that we want to buy, and innovative healthcare solutions that we can’t adopt. My concern is not being able to watch YouTube without the buffering message, it is instead the elderly person who could receive in-home diagnostic care without having to go to the hospital if only broadband was available.

Last year I spoke to a large audience of educators and mentioned the bandwidth issue. They were able to understand the issue personally because many of them use Netflix at home and have had to deal with streaming problems. Between video streaming and gaming, I think everyone is waking up to the problem. However solutions still seem to be unattainable at this point. Regardless of who do you think is to blame for the lack of affordable broadband solutions, the truth is that we as citizens need to deem this issue important enough to do something about it.

It is disappointing to me that technology wise no one has stepped up and come up with an affordable solution to this issue. Looking back in the past, many companies used proxy servers to provide internet to their offices. The open source Squid Proxy is a good solution for caching internet connections. There seems to be a lack of initiative to create a cheap router with a built-in caching squid proxy. Performance wise, you do need memory and disk space to run squid smoothly, but by far I think the biggest deterrent is the complicated problems that proxies create. With a proxy you do have to deal with some sites not working correctly, and UPnP network devices tend to break.

We are kind of left in this limbo state of having limited internet connections and no real viable solutions. The longer we ignore the problem the longer we stall innovation and deny ourselves improvements in education, business, healthcare, and entertainment.

pfSense Home Router – Part 3

torchAfter several months of running pfSense as my home router solution, I now feel that my current Squid Proxy configuration is stable enough to recommend. I have been running the current Squid 3 package that is available in pfSense without many issues. The configuration is pretty simple. Primarily I found that running proxies, including Squid, in transparent mode is just too much trouble for home networks. Transparent mode never quite works right with iOS devices and other media devices, that in the end is not worth the hassle. Instead I manually specify a web proxy in my preferred browsers: Firefox, Safari, and IE. for the iPhone, you can specify a proxy for the wireless connection you are using. It is kind of a pain to have to remember to input a proxy, but you only do it one time and it is easier to troubleshoot one application or device at a time then trying to troubleshoot transparent mode and bring down all usage while you work things out.

I have a small home user network with around 20 different devices all communicating to the router. There are about six computers, and the rest of the devices are your typical smart phones, iPods, game consoles, and media players. The Squid setup is there to speed up web browsing and downloads for the computers and web browsers on the phones and iPods.

There are some basic configuration recommendations on the pfSense Wiki, but once you get past that, there is not much out there as to what settings to use. In general Squid uses two resources: disk space and memory. For my configuration I have settled on a 32 disk cache setting, meaning I have set aside 32GB of disk space to cache to disk. For memory, Squid utilizes memory in two different ways. The first to hold an index of the disk cache and the rest for the rest of Squid functions. To calculate the memory usage, the rule is that you need 10 MB for each Gigabyte of space you are caching.

  • cache_mem 640 MB
  • maximum_object_size_in_memory 4096 KB
  • minimum_object_size 0 KB
  • maximum_object_size 4194304 KB
  • cache_dir ufs /var/squid/cache 32768 16 256

Using the parameters above, I have decided to utilize 640 MB for cache memory, which is twice the rule. The largest cached object in memory is 4 MB, meaning anything larger than 4 MB will not be cached in memory and will have to rely on disk cache. Lastly the largest file on disk that can be cached is equal to 4 GB.

With this configuration and typically 3 to 8 devices connecting to the proxy, at the most the disk cache grows by a couple of GB a week. More importantly, RAM for the router peaks at 58% in use, which leaves plenty of room for other pfSense functions. The current router has 4GB of RAM and is an Intel Atom CPU based system.