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Archive for April 2010

The future’s not what it used to be…

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When I was a kid I used to read Look and Learn – a magazine that was half educational and half kid’s comic. The educational side tended to focus on science, technology, and the future. I was an avid reader and totally believed the predictions that by the year 2000 we’d be enjoying holidays on the moon, travelling to work in flying cars, and would have so much leisure time that we’d all be first rate sportsmen (and sportswomen).

Around the same time I used to watch Gerry Anderson’s UFO TV series which portrayed the near future as a world where we’d be all wearing silver jumpsuits or Nehru suits, driving jet-powered cars, and there’d be several permanently manned bases on the moon.

In the mid- to late-1970s BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World predicted a world of domestic robots and so much leisure time we’d need to find new ways of filling it.

So, here we are, living in the future… What happened ? I don’t own a silver jumpsuit (or a Nehru suit). My car is powered by a conventional petrol engine and doesn’t fly. I check the travel brochures every few years but I’ve yet to see any offering a holiday on the moon.

What we got instead was mobile phones, personal computers, and flat screen TVs.

It’s all very disappointing…

Written by Sea Monkey

April 12, 2010 at 7:00 pm

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What is Skype doing about SIP ?

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I’ve recently installed a VoIP enabled ADSL router/modem and setup a couple of SIP accounts. I have a non-geographic number (0845) assigned to one account and a geographic number assigned to the other using the area code for my employer’s offices rather than the area code for where I live.

I still use a land line for most private calls but these two SIP accounts give me a lot of useful flexibility. The first SIP account allows me to give out a number for private or business use in situations where I don’t want a phone number to indicate where I live. The second SIP account is useful for business use as it appears to be my employer’s offices, or at least a number at the same location.

There are several SIP account providers in the UK that only charge for outgoing calls rather than a monthly rental. Sipgate for example don’t charge for an account, a number assigned to the account, or incoming calls. You only pay for outgoing calls and these are charged at lower rates than a standard land line.

After a few days of use it suddenly dawned on me that I already had a VoIP account. In fact, an account that I’ve used for the past eight years – my Skype account. I’ve only ever used Skype with the Skype Windows desktop application but surely I could configure my router/modem with the details of my Skype account and then I’d be able to send and receive calls using the POTS (plain old telephone service) handset that I’ve attached to the router/modem ? All I needed was the details of the SIP account associated with my Skype account.

But, it’s not as simple as that. Skype is not a SIP based system. However, it did introduce a beta programme last year for using Skype with SIP based systems. In fact, it was exactly a year ago – last March.

It’s still a beta programme which seems odd and implies that Skype is dragging its heels on this issue. Anyway, I went ahead and signed up. This requires that you register for Skype’s Business Control Panel (BCP) as this provides access to SIP settings. The alarm bell started ringing at this point – why isn’t there a ‘personal’ option rather than the business oriented offering ?

Once in the BCP it got worse: Skype charges €4.95 per number per month.

Clearly, this isn’t a service aimed at personal users. But Skype is losing out because there are plenty of SIP account providers that will happily allocate a SIP account and a telephone number free of charge and still charge competitive rates for calls.

But I think Skype hasn’t even got the service right for business users either. €4.95 per number per month doesn’t sound like a lot of money but it soon becomes a significant figure when you scale it up to service the needs of a company employing more than a handful of employees.

If Skype doesn’t get a handle on this very quickly it’s in danger of becoming irrelevant as cheaper and more affordable VoIP enabled hardware becomes available and both home and business users want to use SIP-based VoIP.

Written by Sea Monkey

April 8, 2010 at 8:00 pm

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Don’t forget about FIXMBR

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I’ve just installed solid state disks (SSDs) in a couple of servers. These particular machines run 24x7x365 but are low power machines with passive cooling. The hard disk in each machine was the most significant source of noise and heat and an SSD appeared to be a good way of reducing both of these.

However, the SSDs are only 128Gb and both servers had much bigger disks currently installed. There are a number of tools that can be used for resizing partitions and although I’ve bought and used several of the commercial products in the past, more recently I’ve used GParted without any problems.

I used several tools in the process of copying the existing partition to the new SSDs:

  • Diskpar to create a partition starting at sector 128 on each SSD (the alignment improves performance with older versions of Windows and SSDs)
  • GParted Live to resize the existing partition in place so that it will fit on the SSD.
  • GParted Live to copy the partition from the old disk on to the SSD.
  • MBRWizard to make the partition on the SSD active and check that it’s OK

Changing the disk on the first server was straightforward and the machine booted cleanly from the SSD at the first attempt.

A couple of days later I repeated the process on the second server. The process was the same although the existing hard disk was smaller and the partition was aligned differently. After installing the SSD in the server I switched it on, confident that it would boot first time as the other server had.

My confidence was misplaced. The server wouldn’t boot. I didn’t get any boot failure or other messages, just a black screen and a blinking cursor. I went into the BIOS setup and confirmed that the SSD was recognized and tried rebooting again. No luck.

I took the SSD out of the server and ran MBRWizard against it. It looked OK but I tried using the /repair option in case there was a problem with the MBR that wasn’t showing up in the output from the /list command. It still wouldn’t boot.

I put the SSD in a USB caddy and attached it to a laptop to check the disk and partition were both readable . They were.

The only thing I could think of was to run the Windows Setup CD against the SSD and hope that Setup would recognise the partition and offer to repair it. Luckily, it did. Unluckily, it didn’t make any difference. This was very disappointing as Setup had taken several minutes to do something but whatever it was it didn’t fix the problem.

I was running out of options and starting to get desperate. There didn’t seem to be much to lose at this point as the SSD appeared to be unbootable but I still had the original disk. So, if it came to it, I could afford to trash the partitition on the SSD and re-copy the partition from the original disk.

So, I booted off the Windows Setup CD again and chose the option to start the Repair Console. At the command line I typed in ‘fixmbr’ and hit the Enter key. The following message was displayed:

FIXMBR may damage your partition tables if you proceed.
This could cause all the partitions on the current hard disk to become
inaccesible.

Oh well, nothing to lose…  I typed ‘y’ and pressed the Enter key.

Writing new master boot record on physical drive
\Device\Harddisk0\Partition0.
The new master boot record has been successfully written.

I typed ‘exit’, the server rebooted, and…

The server booted from the SSD into Windows without any problems.

Whatever the problem was, I don’t understand why neither MBRWizard or the Windows Setup Repair failed to fix it. Thankfully, FIXMBR did the trick.

I discovered shortly afterwards that Diskpar is superceded by Diskpart and I shouldn’t have been using it. Perhaps this was the cause of the missing or invalid MBR.

Written by Sea Monkey

April 6, 2010 at 8:00 pm

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Western Digital: Oh no, here we go again…

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In the middle 1990s Western Digital manufactured several hard disk models that became notorious for early failures. Unfortunately, I had a couple of them and lost some data as well as experiencing the inconvenience of removing, returning, and replacing the disks. The second disk failed when it was less than 3 months old and I vowed that I would never purchase another Western Digital disk.

For the next few years  I only ever bought IBM hard disks. A little more expensive than average but good performers and very reliable. When Hitachi bought IBM’s storage products division I stayed loyal and continued to buy the Hitachi branded products.

Last week I was building a storage server and wanted an energy efficient 2TB internal hard disk and an external 2TB disk for making offsite backup copies. Western Digital’s ‘Green edition’ disks have been getting good reviews for the past year and I decided to give them a try.

I was slightly confused by the fact that there are currently two 2TB models in the Green series. The most obvious difference between the two, looking at the information on the retailer’s web site, was that one was an OEM package (i.e. a bare disk) and one was a retail package (with SATA cable, mounting screws, etc.). The OEM version was described as ‘Advanced Format’ and suitable for Vista and Windows 7. I didn’t understand the significance of this when I made the purchase.

For the external disk, I decided to go with Western Digital again because the My Book Essential 2TB is good value and is based around a Green Edition drive.

The first problem I hit is that ‘Advanced Format’ is not some marketing slogan but refers to how the drive is formatted. Instead of 512 byte blocks, the disk is formatted in 4096 byte blocks. While Vista and Windows 7 have support for the new block size, older versions of Windows do not. There’s a utilitity called WD Align that can be downloaded from Western Digital’s web site to improve performance when using these disks on older versions of Windows.

So, the first task was to run the WD Align utility. I installed the 2TB disk in the PC and then booted from a CD containing the utility. After several minutes of waiting for it to boot, load, and run, it displayed a message indicating that there was no partitition for it to align. Ah, I hadn’t realised that the utility aligned partitions… So, I’d just wasted 5 minutes.

After creating a partition on the disk I rebooted from the CD again and ran WD Align. It’s actually a customised verson of Acronis TrueImage that moves the partition to ensure that it’s on a block boundary that minimises the performance issues that can occur when using ‘Advanced Format’ drives on versions of Windows prior to Windows Vista and Windows 7. The alignment process only took a few minutes.

In fairness to Western Digital, I think they have made some effort to inform purchasers what ‘Advanced Format’ really means. However, I don’t think that retailers have yet understood the issue and are not passing the information on to consumers. Also, Western Digital’s information is very limited as it only discusses the issue with reference to Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. What about Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 ? I can make some informed guesses but why should I guess ? For a change of this significance Western Digital should have made comprehensive information available regarding operating system compatibility.

Having sorted this problem out I was looking forward to unpacking the My Book and connecting it up. It’s just a USB external drive – how hard can that be ?

As it turned out, harder than you might think… Western Digital have taken a very odd direction with the latest My Book models. Instead of a simple USB Mass Storage interface these models also have a SCSI Enclosure Services (SES) interface. The SES interface allows enclosure data such as temperature to be passed to the PC. The downside is that an additional driver is required: the WD SES Driver.

Western Digital have also decided to use some of the disk to create a Virtual CD (VCD) image that is automatically mounted when the disk is attached. This means that, like it or not, each time you connect the disk you’re going to get an additional virtual CD-ROM device mounted.

If you Google ‘western digital vcd’ you’ll find plenty of vitriolic outpourings from some very angry and annoyed My Book owners. I sympathethise with them – it does seem astonishing that Western Digital have engineered such a heavy handed solution to the problem of delivering backup software with the disk.

Thankfully, Western Digital has created a new version of the firmware than disables the VCD. This is better than nothing but it would have been better yet if they had provided a means to remove the VCD partition and disable the SES interface.

Disabling the VCD requires updated firmware to be downloaded and installed to the disk. Then the VCD Manager utility must be downloaded and run against the disk.

If you haven’t already installed the SES driver by this stage then you’re now in a Catch-22 situation because Windows won’t be able to locate the driver. Western Digital provides a copy of it… on the VCD!

You don’t need to install the SES driver but you’ll get nagged by Windows each time you connect the disk if you don’t. I installed the driver on the laptop I was using to run the VCD Manager utility. I regretted it almost immediately. I can’t be certain that the Blue Screen of Death that occurred a few minutes later was because of Western Digital’s drivers but I’ve never had a BSOD on this PC before (it’s a laptop that I’ve used for the past 4 years) and the first one I get is within 3 or 4 minutes of installing Western Digital’s SES driver. Nice…

Written by Sea Monkey

April 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm

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