Wednesday, September 24, 2008

VMWare Server 2 Released

There were predictions with VMWorld going on this week that the free VMWare Server 2 would be released - it has. Hop on over to vmware.com to read more & get a copy. Some notable new features from the 1.0 line: Passthrough SCSI device for guests allowing direct access to physical devices such as tape drives, USB 2.0 support, 8GB RAM support in guests, VMI interface and hot adding of scsi drives.

I've been a long time user of the 1.0.x product and look forward to testing out and using the improvements in 2.0.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

New Poll: Internet Connections

Five people or 5 Thousand, chances are the office has Internet connectivity. In tech jargon these connections are often called pipes - for good reason. A big misconception / misstatement about Internet connections is one is "faster" than the other. The reality is that electrons all move at the same speed and what people are generally referring to is how long it takes to 'download' something. Going back to the pipe analogy, water moves through a 1 inch pipe at the same speed as a 6 inch pipe, but the 6 inch pipe can move more at the same time.

Wikipedia has a breakdown of bandwidth that different connections offer. An office's selection will generally be based on few requirements. 1) Throughput/bandwidth commonly called speed. 2) Redundancy / resiliency, 3) Service availability.

In my office a dual T1 connection is used for the equal reasons of both bandwidth and redundancy. Things would be ok running on one circuit, just slowed slightly. My location has left few options for alternative connections outside of the phone company's services for the case where a cement truck runs over the large telco box down the street. There is not a cable feed within a reasonable distance and satellite is not known for supporting vpn connections well. I did recently find out that Verizon offers staticly addressed wireless cards for a minor setup cost. In testing, these cards can offer T1 comparable speeds (using an antenna) with only minor latency overhead. Any comments / experiences with using these in this regard are greatly appreciated.

There are too many options to post a poll on what type of connections people are using so please just comment in with your thoughts.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Interesting Tech: Dropbox

This probably isn't suited (yet) for businesses beyond a handful of people, but Computerworld.com has an article on "Dropbox". Dropbox is a tool for synchronizing files between pc's using their intermediary service built upon Amazon's S3 storage. It appears to be a young tool with some limits and a good bit of promise. Check out the Dropbox FAQ for a good list of what it is and what/how it does it.

Might be a good tool to help keep an updated copy of key documents in case of disaster(if you don't already employ a DR plan that does this) - Or for use at home to keep those precious digital memories backed up. It's not a backup service in a technical sense - it only keeps copies of live documents, no history. It does however offer an "UnDelete" feature.

It claims to use encryption, but per the FAQ you can always put your files in a TrueCrypt volume and then sync that up.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Internal Chargebacks

My current place of work is 'small' enough that IT does not 'charge' the business units for services provided.

From a business perspective, I favor charge-backs for a few reasons. First, I think it is important that business units have some concept of how much IT resources cost, and probably one of the most direct ways to make this happen is seeing it hit a department's budget. Secondly by 'seeing' how much IT costs, requests for changes / new services are less blindly requested with little concern for costs. Thirdly charge-backs force IT to be aware of costs down to a relatively fine grained level. This last fact should be taken advantage of irregardless of whether or not charge-backs are used or not.

Before I continue on with that last statement, I do acknowledge that charge-backs have draw-backs. Charge-backs introduce a good bit of accounting overhead. IT must very accurately measure and report on services provided. This can be a very complicated task depending on the services provided, the supporting infrastructure, and business organization. Then of course there is all the actual accounting work, internal invoice and bill processing. Execution of this concept definitely adds cost, hopefully with some return/savings when done properly

Again regardless of whether or not IT does charge-backs or not I think knowing, at least within some small margin of error, what services cost is incredibly valuable. Like any other metric, availability for instance, knowledge is power. When looking for new solutions, having an industry standard or competitive per user cost for a service can be a decision make or break factor. When evaluating a replacement / service upgrade, knowing what the 'old' service cost and then being able to compare that to the new service can help make the proper select to keep that per user cost in a target zone.

I started off mentioning that charge-backs are not done in my current workplace. I have however, over the past several months been working through constructing a spreadsheet that exposes the true costs of IT services. It has been a challenge to properly assign metrics to services - ie what is the true capacity of an MS Exchange server, and what are all the associated bits behind an email account(much more than just a CAL). I've finally come to a place with it that I'm fairly happy with. Its made apparent many facts, some good - some which need improvement, that will be very valuable in my future decision making processes.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

New Poll: CRM

I blogged earlier about CRM and wanted to put a poll out there to hear what others are up to regarding CRM. My workplace is still on track to begin a SageCRM implementation in the next few weeks. It is definitely one of those tools the users aren't really sure of what it does or even is. I've been working hard to spread the word it is something that can help significantly improve the level of customer service provided by bringing together the details of various interactions different employees have with customers in one central location. Another major point of any rollout is adoption. A big part of the final vendor selection was usability and I feel confident SageCRM will be viewed as intuitive to use - it is natively web based and integrates incredibly well with MS Outlook. Some department managers have also been tasked to ensure their areas are 'motivated' in a measurable way to utilize the tool.

A few small (15-20 people) sister companies I know live and die by their CRM. What are your CRM experiences - good and bad?

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

System Imaging

Anyone who has to manage PC's is probably aware of the time consuming task of having to 'setup' a computer from scratch. I'm talking about formatting disk drives, installing an operating system, applying security updates, installing applications, and configuration. This set of tasks can easily consume 4-6-8 hours of time and from a business standpoint is time poorly spent.

There are solutions out there. One approach is to use thin clients or stripped down pc's that only serve the purpose of connecting to a server for all useful applications. This works well for local users needing a very standard set of applications, not terribly well suited for mobile/disconnected users(However some really cool [aka expensive] solutions do exist for this). I personally utilize low spec'd PC's running a next-to-nothing OS install at my workplace - they work great, are cheap to obtain, and last several years. The other type of option is to use system images. System imaging is the concept of creating a "golden" setup that can then be wholesale copied to different computers. While the process of creating the 'golden' image can be time consuming, the benefits are significant. A PC can be taken out of the box, have the image copied to its drive, up and running in less than 30 minutes with a standard set of sofware and configurations. Apply this process to several PC simultaneously and the time savings are huge.

From a support standpoint the use of images creates a very consistent environment to support. A PC can also very quickly be 're-imaged' and returned to the user if is a spare is unavailable. If you're talking about a physical system, creating an image right before testing a new 'something' is also a great backup method.

I initiated the use of images in my current workplace and I can't begin to count the amount of setup, and support time it has saved. I've used Symantec Ghost for imaging in my MS-centric environment over the years and it works very well. I'd love to hear comments about other imaging solutions people have used, commercial or open source.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Social Networking@ Work

I began blogging for mostly professional reasons (check out my first entry). Here and there I run across articles on companies that internally (and externally) exploit blogs, and forums for business use. For larger companies I can kind of see the value of this use but still wonder about : A) Don't most of these companies have Intranets for corporate information / happenings, B) How to keep employees from 'blogging' the day away, C) policing of content.

If you're using blogs / forums internally, what was the business motivation to do so, how was is sold to management, and how is it operated(content policies, etc)?

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Monday, September 8, 2008

New Poll: Virtualization

Poll Day Topic: Do You Use Virtualization

Share your experiences, opinions and environments about virtualization. What solution do you use and why. Are you avoiding virtualization? What has worked for you and what has not.

I use it - at work, and at home. In the office it has saved tens of thousands in equipment alone, not to mention some of the 'intangibles': cooling, power, physical space, recoverability, testing, etc. I'm a VMware fan for several reasons, but I'm not looking to start a holy war over the best solution - here anyway. Some key points I've taken away from my virtualization adventures: 1) RAM, RAM, RAM - have lots of RAM in the physical server. RAM is your best friend and it is inexpensive these days. 2) VM's generate lots of small random IO - have a properly designed disk subsystem (aka avoid Raid5). More spidles are your friend. 3) Understand the workload of your VM's. Checkout one of my older posts about virtualization in general and why it's valuable in nearly any environment.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Linkage: Storage Tips

I've only poured over a few of the many articles, but there's lots of good info about SANs/SCSI/SATA.
-To SATA or not to SATA
-Price vs performance in selecting a RAID configuration

SearchStorage.com

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Meeting Room Mayhem

I work in an office that has a handful of meeting rooms, some large enough for seated groups of 40, others with long boardroom style tables for 20. Each of these rooms has a projector, either ceiling mounted, or simply set on a small rolling table/cart. Each of these rooms also has either a PC or a laptop that is networked an usable by anyone with a login. It never seems to fail when I see a call from an extension in one of these rooms, that the previous occupant proceeded to disconnect any and all wires and completely rearrange the seating. In the past I've tried neatly arranging / wrapping any wiring to make appearances as neat (and safe) as possible with the hopes the overall 'neatness' of the room would be better kept.

I'm searching for any (realistic) concepts of how to (even subconsciously) motivate people into returning a room to a 'standard' when they are finished using the room.

JRH

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Linkage

Thought I'd share a few of the blogs that I frequent. Chances are if you're reading me, you'll like these as well.

Savagenomades.net is done by Jason Benway (An old college classmate of mine).
The Standalone-Sysadmin by Matt is always full of good material
TheGeekDoctor by John Halamka - insightful writings, chances are you know his name already.

I'll pop these into a sidebar gadget for my and your convenience.

JRH

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

CRM

Guess what, it's another 3 letter acronym: CRM. Customer Relationship Managment. It's nothing new but has been a consuming item in my career for the past 12 or so months. At its core CRM is a centralized repository for information - typically contacts, freeform notes, that allows many people to see, review, and update this information. CRM solutions exist that are tailered for as few as 1 persons and up to thousands of users.

As a systems / network administrator, I appreciate and acknowledge the value of 'centralized'. Having anything in a highly organized and shareable, consistent format makes those 'anythings' much more valuable and efficient.

In organizations where a 'team' of different people interact with customers, CRM offers many positives. When contacting / being contacted by a customer CRM can be referenced to see what the last communication was, when it was, and who it was with. This type of background is invaluable to providing efficient customer service be it sales support, technical support, or billing/account support.

From a HR standpoint, CRM helps solve turnover issues. Instead of users keeping unstructred notes, who knows where, CRM keeps data in one place - consistently structured. This also applies in situations where customers are handed off between sales account managers, or even internally between departments/divisions.

I was tasked with finding a solution to many of the above 'challenges' and putting together a project through implementation. I started this off with a few small meetings gathering a list of desired features and then prioritizing those into 1: Must Have Now, 2: Must Have Later, 3: Would be Nice. This was invaluable when speaking with vendors on what their CRM product was capable of and developing a staged implementation. Many vendors quickly had to decline due to not being able to fullfil #1 items. At one point I was left with only a single vendor, not a good negotiating standpoint. I was able to find another offering that eventally ended up winning the project and that'll be kicking off just several weeks from now. More on that as it unfolds.

I'd like to stress a things that stick out during my reflections on the project thus far. The first is having a list / knowing what you want to get out of a CRM solution. There are too numerous solutions out there to list out but knowing weather or not ACT! will work for your needs or if a solution as elaborate as saleslogix.com or salesforce.com can really be simplified by knowing your end goals. From technical standpoint there are lots of architechtual differences that play into the decision making process. Some solutions are completely web based(connect from anywhere), for some web connectivity is an ($)add-on, some only offer local network access.

Is your workplace using CRM, what's your impression?

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

iSCSI - SAN for Small (and big players)

For years all the buzz in storage has centered around 3 letters SAN. The storage area network, fast, centralized, flexible, resilient. Placing storage directly in each server is costly, inefficient, risky, and slow. And for some number of years vendors and partners and such 'hid' this term from smaller shops due to costs involved with a SAN architecture that was designed to meet all the marketing accolades. Fibre channel equipment was really the only option.

A new technology began to surface 3-4 years ago - i(nternet)SCSI. I won't rehash all the details that Wikipedia can provide except for the main point of iSCSI - commodity interconnects. iSCSI allows for the use of common networking equipment: switches, NICs, cables. iSCSI does not require the use of $1K+ HBA's, fragile cabling and specialized directors/switches, etc. The reality of iSCSI's pratical use is here due to the commoditization of gigabit ethernet and soon to be 10gig ethernet.

iSCSI also brought options to storage subsystems. No longer are costly FC drives the only option, but also SCSI, SAS, and even SATA. A multi terabyte array can be obtained or even constructed for costs well within reach of nearly any business. iSCSI can also (and often does) exist a strictly software world - no HBA'$ required. Some argue the software overhead is detrimental to overall system performance. I'd argue today's systems have sufficient processing capacity to run software iSCSI in situations where iSCSI is a good fit.

With this commoditization of the SAN, vendors have been quick to offer up 'solutions' for smaller shops. I have a caution to throw out that requires a little lesson on storage. First off, the most important item in selecting the proper storage is understanding the application(s) that will access it. I can't elaborate on this enough - don't even start to think about how much space you'll need until the application is understood. In fact refuse to talk about capacity with any vendor until this is ironed out. Try throwing a few virtual machines at solution that only does (or has been configured for) RAID 5, along with a file server, or mail server - it will not make you feel good about the money spent. At one point I had a prominent vendor's rep suggest a 4 spindle SATA system to me to replace a (6) disk file server and an Exchange server. All that person was concerned about was how much space and quoting his cheapest offering to improve the chance of a sale. I don't carry any certification badges, but I am well informed and experienced, and I know when I'm getting a snow job.

I ended up with a 16 SATA drive over two 3ware controllers system running linux and the open source iSCSI Enterprise Target software to provide my iSCSI storage. It's been rock solid. Its 8 drive RAID10 ran up against performance issues after a handful of VM's where thrown on it, but in all fairness virtualization was not in the picture when the system was spec'd. The next iteration will be 15K SAS based for VM storage.

So why use a SAN/iSCSI? A few main concepts are modularization and maximizing the storage investment. By detaching storage from a specific system several benefits are realized: 1) Smaller form factor systems can be purchased since they don't need to be filled with drives. 2) In the event of a system failure the storage can be accessed by a different system. 3) It fits into a virutalization environment for lots of reasons. 4) Designed right it will be faster than local storage. 5) Because multiple systems utilize space on the iSCSI server, the disk investment-to-utilization ratio is typically better.

Downsides include: 1) Slightly complicates overall architecture, 2) Small bit of iSCSI management expertise, 3) Many eggs in one basket situation(get a good warranty). With the right system and financial resources the iSCSI server can be setup to mirror with another system for improved reliability.

Know your applications, read about technology and reviews, search vendor support forums/blogs for real world feedback on your purchasing considerations.

Storage Advisors Have LOTS of great blogs on RAID levels/storage and their INs & OUTs

JRH

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Monday, September 1, 2008

Office Phone Systems

The motivation for this article came from a situation sprung on me a few months ago that I'll elaborate on a bit more later. Chances are if there are more than a handful of phones in your office, you have an office phone system of one type or another. I'm not going to jump into the various types of technologies behind phone systems, quite intentionally so. One quickly discovers that phone systems, much akin to networking, have their own mystique and black magic, and can be quickly overwhelming with acronyms and terminology. Like networking and other 'complicated' subject matter, the experts are often best left with handling the fine grain details of phone systems. This isn't to say a moderately savvy person can not handle the basic / common phone system operations.

Moving closer to my surprise 'situation'. Phone systems are very important parts of business, there isn't any questioning this fact. I can't help but feel this business value is exploited to a certain extent by phone system manufactures and those who install and support them(partners). Anyone who has purchased a system that supports more than a handful of extensions quickly realizes the investment is substantial, not to mention ongoing support. I'm talking the kind of investment that stretches not 5 years but 10 or 15, maybe more.


The meat of the situation. The system I'm responsible for was made by a prominent manufacturer whose name starts with the letter "A". It was a good size investment when installed just 5 year ago and is currently supporting around 250 extensions with room to grow. The surprise I received was that part of the system will no longer be supported post 2008 by the manufacturer. The system is very modular so maybe this isn't that big of a deal, right? Well it seems that the 'suggested' upgrade path is more akin to replacing the entire engine of a car versus just 4 new tires and proportionally so in cost as well. Three things came to mind in this scenario: 1) So I spend this money to have a supportable system without any other added benefit, 2) When will the next 'Upgrade' have to take place, and 3) aren't phone systems supposed to last a long time?.

My next move was to investigate 3rd party support. In searching it seemed to be a very common situation where customers were presented with obsolescence / costly upgrades from manufacturers and end up using 3rd party support. Great I'm not alone. The endgame was that I've found what appears to be a very reputable provider (according to the several references I've spoken with) who can support my system (better than the mfg) long term, and for less cost.

I was not involved in the purchase of the current system thus did not have a chance to ask any questions. This situation does highlight a few pointers for the next time a new system purchase comes around. 1) Consider 3rd party support from the start or immediately after the initial mfg warranty is over. 2) Get feedback from customers with similar equipment and a long history with the manufacturer.

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