Sometimes a hardware issue… isn’t.

A Tale of Hardware Support

hardwareRecently, a client of mine had a problem with their laptop’s wireless card. It just stopped working. One day it was fine, the next it wasn’t. So I called the laptop manufacturer, (it was under warranty) and they sent me a new wireless card. I installed the new card, and it still didn’t work. I then downloaded and reinstalled the wireless drivers – still didn’t work. I then uninstalled the driver, then reinstalled the driver: still didn’t work.

Manufacturer support sent out onsite tech support to replace the card, still didn’t work. They suggested that I reload the laptop. So I backed up all the data, and reloaded the laptop. That worked! The wireless card worked fine after reinstalling Windows. I still can’t make any sense of this, but it reminded me of a mantra I have, usually reserved for virus infections: Just reload it!

 

AZS-4

Chase Reitter
Network Consultant
chase.reitter@customsystems.com

End-of-Year IT Tasks

time to plan Ivelin RadkovIn a previous blog, we discussed how the calendar end-of-the year can be different for IT than the rest of the year. Because of a possible fiscal year-end, possible higher resource utilization, less staff due to holiday vacations and other factors, IT operations and procedures shift or change. So, let’s discuss some of the tasks IT people need to do to prepare for the end-of-year and the start of the next:

  • Backup – We all knew this would be on the list and should probably hold a very high priority, so it is first on the list. We need to have a backup of the data at the year’s end. Unless you want one, you probably do not need a systems backup, only data. Our daily and weekly backups will take care of system state backups. What we do want is a complete backup of all data as it looked at the end-of-year. This backup will go somewhere safe. Odds are we will never need it, but we will have it just in case. In some cases, accounting and finance may need to utilize that backup to make sure they only have the previous year’s data without any from the current year.
  • Lock Production – For all the reasons mentioned earlier and other reasons that drive company policy, production systems usually get locked until the end of the year. Only emergency alterations are allowed to production.
  • Increase Support – Many companies are busiest during the holiday season. They are most likely the ones that have production locks. Being busier will increase IT support needs.
  • Increase Operations – Those busy organizations may need an increase in operations to support the increase in business. IT will have to pay closer attention to utilization and daily operations.
  • Staff Alterations – Due to higher vacation utilization at end-of-year, we may also be running on a smaller staff. There will be changes in support coverage and shift operations.
  • Enhance Development – If production is locked, that does not mean we can’t touch the development environment (unless doing so will affect production). This could be a good time to update, clean, or just plain continue work in the development environment.
  • Update Applications – Wait… Didn’t we say production was going to be locked? Well this may be one of those cases where we have no choice. There are software packages that require year-end updates or they will not have the functionality needed to operate properly. For example, accounting and payroll may need updates to tax tables for the next year.
  • Budget – At this point, the previous year’s budget should be gone or close to it. In these last few weeks, you can finalize the budget estimates for the next year. If you had not started on this yet, now may be a good time to start.
  • Reporting – Many business units are going to look for reports on the previous year to perform their required close-outs. So, reporting volume and support will most likely increase.
  • Inventory – if production is locked, now would be a good time to inventory our software and hardware. This includes servers, workstations, laptops, printers and peripherals.
  • Resource Review – This may sound like inventory, but it is a little different. This refers to utilization and consumption. We need to know how much power and computing resources we are currently utilizing and how that will affect the next year. This could occur during or after taking inventory. We should evaluate how much power our systems draw and whether we have ample power and power protection into the next year. We need to know how much of our server (and other hardware) resources we are utilizing to know what we will need for future endeavors.
  • Nothing – We may not need to do anything different. Some organizations see no difference in activity in year-end from the rest of the year.

If you think of any other end-of-year tasks to add to the list or have other points of view, please note them in out comments section.
AZS-3

 

Craig R. Kalty (CCIA, CCEE, CCA, MCITP:EA, MCITP:SA, VCP)|
Sr. Network Consultant
Craig.Kalty@CustomSystems.com

 

 

 

© 2014 Custom Systems Corporation

When RAID is not equal to High Availability

Know your storage devices before buying something “just as good”.

An SMB experience using low-cost iSCSI storage devices

One objection we typically hear from potential clients is why vendor X costs more than vendor Y for the same features and specifications. Today, it is not uncommon in the storage market (SANs and NAS) to know that that you are buying more than specs and need to look more in-depth when you find a low-cost alternative for a technology that previously was considered too expensive for your organization.

My recent client experience exemplifies this problem. The storage needs have grown over the past several years and exceeded their file server capacity. Their business requires the long-term retention of image files for every device they manufacture and the repository is approaching 25 years-old. Many of these image files may never be retrieved unless a customer requests them or engineering is researching a design or manufacturing defect. Their daily requirement is to capture high-resolution images of their products and continuously store them as they are prepared for final shipment.

The annual IT budget planning always includes a small SAN for the long term storage and daily storage of these important image files. However, the first item to typically be removed from the budget is the SAN due to what is considered the high cost of the product. Last year this changed, with the introduction of a low-cost, high-value storage device from Buffalo Technology. Who would not want an 8TB rack mount iSCSI RAID5 storage device for $2500 that is “just as good” as small iSCSI SAN for $15,000? The IT budget could surely accommodate such a low-cost, high-value item.

The first year was uneventful and the device performed as advertised. Recently, the device configured with four 2TB SATA drives indicated a drive failure in Slot1. This should not be a problem, as we all know RAID5 will keep running with a single failed drive. A call to Buffalo Technology and the completion of some basic troubleshooting confirmed the problem. A new hard drive replaced under warranty would solve the problem. After jumping through several hoops, chasing confirmation emails, faxing in receipts and paying $100 for an advance replacement my new drive showed up six days later. Yes, I could have paid more for next-day shipping, after the receipt was faxed in, validated by customer service, and payment was submitted to their website. I suspect next-day shipping would still require at least three to four days for the drive to show up.

The instructions delivered with the drive were minimal at best. Update firmware on the device, and insert the new drive. Why would I want to update firmware on an iSCSI storage device that already has a failed hard drive is not something I want to risk and potentially lose all the data? Things happen in IT we all can attest to.

The new drive was inserted, the red LED started to blink and I waited, and waited, and it appeared to be rebuilding the array. I came back after a weekend and it was still blinking. I could not see progress on the rebuild and the product manual gave no indication of the actual process, but being an IT professional I have worked with many RAID5 storage devices that when a failed drive is detected and removed, and a new drive is inserted it just starts rebuilding and your done after several hours.

Not this device, a call to support confirms that you need to go into the web interface, detect the new drive, and then select some menu items to initiate the rebuild.That did not go as planned, and support had to check with a more knowledgeable resource. After a brief wait on the phone I was told to dismount the iSCSI storage device and start the rebuild again. I responded that dismounting the iSCSI device would take my storage offline and make in unavailable to my network of users. Why would this be a requirement for a RAID5 iSCSI storage device used by business? I followed their recommendations and then discovered it would be 33 hours for the array to rebuild with the new drive. I now had a client that was not happy that their RAID5 iSCSI storage device that was “just as good” as a more expensive iSCSI SAN would require them to stop using it for 33 hours while the array was rebuilt. The final outcome was that the unit was restored and all data stayed intact, however, the experience with a product that was “just as good” was much less than expected.

Paul R. Cook
Paul R. Cook
Vice President, Network Services Group
Paul.Cook@CustomSystems.com

 

 

© Copyright 2014 Custom Systems Corporation

Making Sense of Wireless Routers

Anyone who owns a Wireless Access Point I’m sure has seen the different letters are on the side of the device box. Letters such as B,G,N, and even most recently AC. But what do all of these letters mean? They stand for the type of wireless standard that the wireless access point or wireless router is capable of handling. The most common is probably still G, but N is making a name for itself very quickly (and is what I would recommend when purchasing a wireless router). Wireless-B, Wireless-G, Wireless-N, and Wireless-AC are wireless networking terms referring to the 802.11 wireless networking standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). This is the professional organization that sets the standards for electronics discussion and publications around the world. These different letters stand for the protocol that this wireless equipment is built to handle and, more importantly, what speeds and what restrictions they have.

IEEE 802.11n is the wireless networking standard that was created to increase network throughput (or speed) as well as other restrictions over the two earlier standards—802.11b and 802.11g. The wireless b standard, which was the first mainstream standard, was capable of 11 Mbps (Mega-bits per second) and the wireless g (or 802.11g) standard took this speed all the way up to 54 Mbps.

For example, most coffee shop hotspot routers run on Wireless-G (54 Mbps).They are constantly being shared by many people so it can be somewhat slow to connect and actually surf the web. It was for reasons such as this that a new standard was needed. As more devices become “connected”, greater speeds are becoming necessary. What made new Wireless-N so significant is that it increased the maximum network throughput by about 850%. That means taking the speed that wireless was capable of from 54 Mbps, all the way up to about 450 Mbps.

Wireless AC is again changing the game and doing to wireless N what wireless N did to wireless G.  The 802.11 AC is capable of speeds up to 1.3 gigabits per second (Gbps). This translates to 166 megabytes per second (MBps) or 1331 megabits per second (Mbps). It is vastly quicker than the 450Mbit per second (0.45Gbps) speeds that the highest performing 802.11n routers are capable of.

It’s important to note that  all the wireless standards are backwards compatible. What I mean by this, is that if you buy an N router it will work just fine with equipment that is built for B or G as well as N. Or if you buy an N router and your laptop is wireless AC, the laptop will work just fine with the N router. It will just not be as fast as it could be if you had an AC router.

There is so much more that could be said about wireless and its capabilities. In my next post I will talk more about the most current standards (currently 802.11n and 802.11ac) as well as what the next generation of wireless will bring.

If you have any questions or just enjoying learning about technology, check out Custom Systems social media pages for tons more great information. Please leave your comments and questions below.

 

Ryan Ash
Network Consultant
ryan.ash@customsystems.com
©Custom Systems Corporation 2014

A Message to Recent IT Graduates

recent graduates - Visha AngelovaI received a phone call recently from a student at CalTech.  He was doing a phone survey as part of a project for one of his classes.  The questions involved projected company growth, (are you hiring or firing) and what kind of direction the company is going in.  He asked about Virtualization and ERP database systems, and whether or not we use them.  Most of the questions were to be expected, but one in particular caught my attention:  he asked for a few examples of how a ‘noobie’ can find a job in the IT world today.  This got me thinking.  I’ve been working in the IT industry for about 16 years, and I have held a few different jobs.  It took me a few years to find what I really wanted to be doing.  To quote David Byrne, “Well, how did I get here?”

When I graduated, it was at the very beginning of the Dot Com boom.  At that time, finding an IT job wasn’t hard.  Finding the job you wanted to do, took some patience and hard work.  Even though the job market is quite a bit different today, some of the advice I received back then is just as good today.

Attitude is everything.

Arrive at least five minutes before your boss.  Stay at work until five minutes after they leave.

Put your time in.  No one starts exactly where they want, and it takes awhile to get to where you want to be.
Pay attention.  Help and advice will come to you, sometimes from places you didn’t expect.

Get rid of the ear/nose/eye piercings.  Your buddy the chemist might find a job with a ring in his nose, but not you.  Tattoos are okay, just wear long sleeves.

Buy a suit.  Hold off on upgrading your iPhone, and instead put your graduation money into something that will make you more money.  Wearing a nice suit to your job interview says a lot about you.

Cut your hair.  Justin Bieber is a criminal, and so is his stupid haircut.

Learn how to network with people you know.  Facebook can be your friend here, but your Uncle Frank knows a guy who knows a guy who can help you find a job too.  Give him a call.

You will most likely NOT get the job you want when you first start out.  Find the guy that does the job you want to be doing, and shadow him.  Try to convince him to mentor you, whether he wants to or not.  Your mentor may never like you, but he will respect you and show you everything he knows.

Whatever job you get, do your best at it.  Work hard, put a lot of effort in, and your boss will notice.  Before long, you will have the job you always wanted.

 

AZS-4

Chase Reitter
Network Consultant
Chase.Reitter@CustomSystems.com

 

Time for Windows Server 2003 End-Of-Life Plan

Windows 2003In previous posts, we’ve described the necessity to upgrade your Windows XP PCs to either Windows 7 or Windows 8.  Today, we are going to discuss the server side of the house.

Microsoft will stop supporting Server 2003 R2 on July 14, 2015.  I know a year can sound far away and over the horizon, but it isn’t – especially when it comes to servers.  A migration from one server to another can either take a few days or several weeks – depending on your infrastructure.   For example, migrating a file server from 2003 to 2008 is fairly straight forward – especially with the help of  Backup/Restore software like Backup Exec.  Backup Exec remembers things like file permissions, so we can backup your data from your old server, and then restore it to the new server.

If you have shared printers on your network, this part of the migration can be a bit more involved.  Not every printer manufacturer will support installing their printers in a 2008 64-bit environment – but we would investigate this for you before we begin the migration.  If your printers are not supported on a 2008 server, it may be time to upgrade those as well.

Support for Exchange 2003 server ended back in January 2008.  Exchange 2007 ‘mainstream support’ ended  April 2012, with extended support ending April 2017.  If you are still using Exchange 2003 or 2007, you should move to a new server immediately.  Custom Systems has done several migrations from 2003 to 2007, and up to Exchange 2010, so we have a clear path to follow.  We have also migrated a few clients from an on-site Exchange Server to Office 365 hosted email, depending on client need.

If you are using your servers to host applications, like Quickbooks or other third-party vendors, a migration from your old server to a new server gets more complicated.  We may need to get the software vendor involved in the process.  Make sure you have access to the latest version of your Applications before trying to move to a new server.  In some cases, we may even need to migrate to a new software product if the older product is no longer supported.

As always, and we would be happy to provide you with a free Network Assessment. Call or click today!

 

AZS-4Chase Reitter
Network Consultant
Chase.Reitter@CustomSystemsCorp.com

 

Protecting Your Business from ne’er-do-wells

hackerIn the IT world, everything changes very rapidly.  Two of the fastest changing and hardest to keep up with are viruses and hackers.  Hackers are always out there, trying to find a new way to make you have a bad day.  Why?  I don’t know.  I’ve never understood it.  You work hard, trying to grow your business – improving your products every day, reaching out to new customers – while some jerk with nothing better to do is trying to tear it down.  Maybe it’s an Ethos thing, or maybe just jealousy; they can’t build anything productive, so they have to break something that someone else worked hard to create.  But I digress…

What We Can Do About It

Protecting your network starts with a firewall.  It is your first line of defense against attackers.  A firewall is most often a piece of hardware (like a Cisco ASA) that sits at the edge of your network, and is configured to only allow specific types of communication into your network.  It also separates the good traffic from the bad traffic.  Next is a web filter, like a Barracuda.  The web filter monitors internet traffic going in and out of your network. It can be configured to block hazardous websites, and known types of dangerous programs.  It can even be setup to only allow specific users access to the internet.  Next is your anti-virus.  Anti-virus is a program that runs on your PC and servers.  It has to be manually installed on every device on your network, and is usually centrally controlled by a server.  The anti-virus server can be setup on- or off-site, depending on your needs and the size of your network.

Do I really need all three?

Yes.  Think of it this way: If a hacker is like an arsonist, the firewall is the security guard outside the door, the web filter is a locked door, and anti-virus programs are the fire suppression and mop-up crew.  Although you may have anti-virus already, you are just putting out fires after they have already been started.   To really protect your network, you need the security guard – and the locked door.

 

AZS-4Chase Reitter
Network Consultant
Chase.Reitter@CustomSystemsCorp.com

 

 

 

© Copyright 2014 Custom Systems Corporation

Microsoft Hyper-V vs. Citrix Xen Server

For a few years now, here at Custom Systems we’ve had an ongoing debate between two different Virtualization camps: Microsoft Hyper-V Server and Citrix Xen Server.  Today I am going to take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Hyper-VIf you’ve read my blog posts before, you can probably guess which camp I’m in.  I’ve been a big fan of using Microsoft Hyper-V as a Virtualization host for a few years, and here’s why:  For starters, the host server is a true Windows Server environment, (excluding Core version).  I’m used to using Windows Servers, and I am very familiar with them.  I know how to install hardware drivers, software updates, etc.  I can install my Backup Software on the host, and make changes to my Virtual Servers from the Hyper-V host console.  When setup properly, I can have a new Virtual Server up and running in a few minutes.

Citrix Xen ServerCitrix Xen Server, by that comparison, is not as easy to manage.  Granted the install process is MUCH faster, but to properly manage your Xen’s Virtual Servers, you need to install the Xen Center Console on a Windows PC or server.  In some environments, that isn’t practical.

Now for the advantages of Xen Server:  There is almost no overhead.  The Xen Server Host can fit on a small RAID 1 partition, needs very little RAM, and doesn’t need to be managed as often as a Windows Host Server.  This allows you to dedicate all of those fast hard drives and RAM to your Virtual Servers, instead getting taken up by a Windows Host Server.  Plus if you use Xen Server as your host server, that’s one less Microsoft Server license you will need.  You can save that license for one of your VM’s.  Also, exporting or migrating a VM with Xen Server is easy and painless.  I wish I could say the same about Microsoft Hyper-V.  (Maybe in the next release?)

Just a few “Gotcha’s”

I have run into a few situations where a third party vendor would not support using their software or hardware on a Xen Server.  At the beginning of the sales process, we will meet with you to discuss your needs and to determine which Virtualization solution is right for you!

AZS-4Chase Reitter
Network Consultant
Chase.Reitter@CustomSystemsCorp.com

 

 

 

© Copyright 2014 Custom Systems Corporation

Hidden Treasures in Citrix MSP

In another blog “Citrix Offerings”, I discuss the extreme rate of growth and diversification in the Citrix product catalog.

Recently, I was assigned the task of looking into MSP (managed service provider) software. With all the changes I have been following in XenDesktop 7, XenApp 6.5, HDX, NetScaler and more, I let the growth of GoToAssist slip by me.  Originally, GoToAssist was a remote support offering that provided a method of connecting to another person’s workstation, allowing all parties involved to see what is on the  screen of one person’s workstation and utilize remote control of the workstation if needed.  For support people, this is an incredible tool by itself.  The original GoToAssist product of today can still be stand-alone as previously described with some great feature enhancements (i.e. in-session file transfer abilities between remote workstations).

However, GoToAssist has grown beyond that individual offering.  GoToAssist is now the brand name of a relatively low cost suite of products that offer different managed service features.

GoToAssist is now a package where you can license features individually or as a suite.  It still has the ability to connect to other workstations as previously described, but now you can also license the following offerings:

  • Remote Support – Allows you to connect to servers and workstations while working with another person or while utilizing an unattended connection either through an email link created for the session or through an existing GoToAssist program.
  • Service Desk – A help desk incident tracking service that includes a portal for users to report issues that can be self-branded.
  • Monitoring – Remote monitoring and alerting for servers, workstations, network appliances, printers, and more.

As I said before, licensing for the suite can be done for one, two, or all products combined.  Here is the Account Management screen from the product:

GoToAssist

Click to enlarge.

Notice that the three products have separate sections.  This shows you how they can be licensed individually.  For Remote Support, you license the number of technicians and unattended machines.  For Service Desk, you license the number of technicians.  For Monitoring, the number of devices is licensed.  So licensing can have different combinations based on your needs.  We licensed the product as a suite.  Of course, in the IT industry, there is no one-size-fits-all.  However, that ratio of servers to devices should work out in many companies where the server licenses are all used and many of the device licenses go unused.

I have been investigating (pronounced “playing around with”) the products for a little while now.  Here is what I have observed for each product:

Remote Access

Remote Support

Click to enlarge.

The screen shot above shows the Remote Support console.  It lists the devices that have the remote support agent installed on them.  During the install of the agent, it phones home to your server to register itself in this console.  You can see that one device is off (my laptop).  Notice that there is an option to power it on.  PXE enabled devices can be turned on remotely to allow access to it.  As for the agent, there is a Windows .MSI and .EXE installer and a MAC installer.  The agent can be pushed out utilizing existing software push options within the company (at the least, using AD tools).

Click to enlarge.

For iOS devices (iPhone and iPad), an access profile can be created and an app can be downloaded from the Apple store to allow remote support.

Also shown is the link to start a support session.  This is for when you have a user on the other side (attended) and you need to see their workstation.  Once the session is started, you can e-mail a supplied link to the user or you can direct them to a web site that will list your session so they can click on a link there.  This web site is part of this product, so you do not have to do any web development.  Notice there is an option to record sessions.  This comes in real handy when you need to review what was done, keep records, record instructions/procedures that users can play back and more.

The Inventory and Reports sections allow you to view the remote supported devices in groups and to generate reports about previous remote support sessions and technician (named seats) activities.

I really like the remote support option.  There are many other products on the market that allow you to connect remotely to another person’s workstation, but how many of them offer unattended connections with PXE boot if the device is off.  I have tested the features and they work very well.  There are other big name MSP products that have similar features, but for the price point, this product provides the basics very well.

Service Desk

There are two parts to the service desk.  One part is the portal where your users can report an incident, check the status of incidents they previously reported, and review messages posted to users that may have the solution to the issue.  This screenshot shows the incident reporting screen:

monitoring

Click to enlarge.

From here, the technician can open the incident to review, link similar incidents, add instructions or comments, add a resolution, and close the incident.  Notice that in the customer section in the upper right-hand corner, there is a button to start a support session (GoToAssist).  Below that is an area where this incident can be linked to other knowledge base articles, changes and modifications in progress, and other incidents.  This all makes it easier to recommend a solution to an incident that has previously occurred to others.  There is a lot more power to this product, and we would love to provide more customized details based on your organizations needs.

Monitoring

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The third product is the Monitoring piece.  This was a very easy product to roll out.  I installed an data collection application on a server.  That application then went and sniffed the network.  It did a very thorough job and found almost everything.  The manual labor comes in for those devices that were not discovered, those devices that were listed as unknown, and those devices that need more information than what was discovered.  These devices need to be modified or added manually (which is still not difficult).  Some devices you may not want to be monitored, so you just go into the console and tell it to not monitor that device. For SNMP enabled devices, you may want to configure customized alerts.

Looking at the picture above, you can see there are options for inventory, alerting, data collection, reports, server health and logging.  All of these features do a nice job of keeping track of what you have out there. The reporting feature does a great job of creating simple reports to hold for inventory purposes or to hand off to other business units or executives.  I will say that I find the Monitoring product’s feature set to be mostly reactive with some items allowing for proactive monitoring.

For all three products, you are going to get a solid feature set. Keep in mind that this is a relatively new offering from Citrix. And considering Citrix’s track record for improving products, you know they won’t stop here.

AZS-3Craig R. Kalty (CCIA, CCEE, CCA, MCITP:EA, MCITP:SA, VCP)
Sr. Consulting Engineer
Craig.Kalty@CustomSystemsCorp.com
© 2014 Custom Systems Corporation