Monday
Jul132009

Something Funny

I just learned that in order to install the Exchange management tools on a Workstation with Active Directoy Users and Computers on it, you need to install the Windows SMTP service. This in itself is odd and makes me worry, but the oddities don't stop there. Nope. Not even close.

To satisfy the requirements for the Windows SMTP service installation, you also need to install the World Wide Web service (http server), and the Internet Information Services Snap-In. The latter is obvious- Installing the Web server without any way to manage it would be bizarre. But, the fact that the SMTP service REQUIRES a web server is plain stupid!

Good server or workstation management would dictate that the fewer unnecessary services you have installed, the fewer security holes you will have to watch for. And we all know full well that Microsoft's http server is lousy with security problems when it hasn't been installed and maintained properly.

Now, if I want to manage my users' email properties from my workstation, I have to install all of this extra software that is filled with vulnerabilities and potential honey pots for SPAM bots on a network. When you consider this is a management workstation, that's a pretty scary scenario! My PC has fewer checks against it by our security devices, simply by nature of my job! Now, I'm second guessing if just logging into a server every time I need to make a change isn't a bad idea.

Either way, smarten up Microsoft. Seriously. Installing a web server on a mail server is a retarded idea in the first place. And just to make it all worse, the fact that I need to do all of this on a system that shouldn't have EITHER on it...that's unforgivable.

Monday
Jun152009

MacBook Pro 13" Review

Some of my friends have asked that I post a review of my thoughts regarding the new Uni-body 13" MacBook Pro. Most of you know I despise most things Apple, including their hardware, software, and culture-of-Mac.

 

So, why bother with a MacBook?

First and foremost, I like small laptops. A 13" laptop is the perfect combination of size and functionality for me- I don't need a massive screen for most of what I do, but I do need to be able to grab-and-go when work or life calls. I already own a Dell XPS1330, which I will be keeping. I love that machine, and it's been worth every penny I spent on it. But, when Apple announced a uni-body 13" laptop, I had to try it.

The new MacBook Pro systems are made out of a single block of aluminum, which is machined and milled down to the shape and size required. What is left over is easily recyclable, since aluminum is one of the few materials that recycles 100%. Plastic doesn't do that. Not only is the source material more responsible to use, but the battery, circuit boards, screens, glass, and few remaining plastic pieces are all made in more responsible ways. Note, I said MORE RESPONSIBLE WAYS, not environmentally friendly ways. All of these materials require VAST amounts of energy to produce, and cause unbelievable pollution beyond carbon dioxide release. I suspect their next move will be corn or soy based plastics and foams, which have come a very long way in the past two or three years, and require a smaller carbon and pollution footprint to produce.

The second reason I wanted a 13" MacBook Pro is less "hippy". This particular system is the least expensive of the MacBook Pro lineup- a product line that provides more "advanced" options than the standard MacBook line. I an going to be developing software for the iPhone, which requires an OS X system to run the development and testing tools I need. To me, this is complete crap on the side of Apple, but it doesn't surprise me in the least. The Apple culture is about Apple, not the users. You do things their way, or you don't do them at all. But, enough rambling, let's get to the meat and potatoes!

 

Unboxing

The unit itself came wrapped in a thin plastic bag, which held a box that held the laptop, cords and disks. All of these were either contained in other cardboard packaging, or had plastic wrappers on them. I know twist ties confuse Mac users like a plastic bag on a dog's head, but I think we can simple get rid of all this unnecessary garbage. It will all hopefully end up in a recycling plant, but the fact of the matter is that producing, shipping, and recycling costs money, energy, and frankly, time. And even given how easy it is to recycle, many people still don't do it. So, just stop wrapping these things completely!

Aside from the unnecessary boxes, dividers, wrappers, and protective sleeves, the unit itself is packed solidly within its box. There is no risk of the computer sliding around within the box, which is a good thing. I've received many systems that had crushed their packaging and slammed around the inside of a shipping box, which is obviously not a good thing. The computer itself also comes with a plastic sleeve over it to prevent scratches to the aluminum body. This fact actually worries me- how well will the body stand up to the test of time and constant usage?

Once you have everything unwrapped and ready to plug in, you will notice a foam protective piece slid between the keyboard and the screen. This is for shipping purposes, and most manufacturers take this simple measure to prevent keys from scratching your screen during shipping. I will make this request here and now- STOP. I've carried laptops for YEARS as my primary machine, and I've seen several hundred of them used in business and personal situations. NONE of them have ever had the keyboard scratch the screen. We don't need the foam divider.

 

Hardware

The first thing I did to my MacBook Pro, before even turning the power on, was upgrade my RAM. I ordered the computer with 2GB, and wanted 4GB. Apple, in typical OEM fashion overcharges for their RAM. But, unlike Dell, HP, or IBM, they don't just charge a few percent more than market value. They charge several TIMES more. This is unforgivable to me, and is a clear sign that they are trying to milk "power" users that know more RAM is more valuable to the usability of a computer. Moreover, even offering a laptop with less than 4GB of RAM in 2009 is foolish- ESPECIALLY when your entire operating system is 64bit. Drop the 2GB offering, and bump the base model up to 4GB. Your low end users may not utilize the new memory to its fullest, but the operating system itself will be more responsive than they are used to. This is a bonus for everyone!

When I opened the body, there were 10 #0 screws on the bottom side of the system. These sized screws are pretty standard from all manufacturers, so everything is good so far. Immediately I noticed the screws took a little more force to remove than I would normally be comfortable with. This turned out to be due to the Loc-Tite used on the screws during assembly in China. I think this is a wise choice, and ALL manufacturers should move to using some kind of thread-locking fluid during assembly. Over time, screws will break free and start backing themselves out of every laptop. This is what causes those creaks when you pick up your laptop from the table. Simply using a thread locking fluid reduces the risk of this happening, which increases longevity of the laptop.

Inside the extremely chintzy feeling bottom panel is where your RAM, hard drive, DVD drive, and battery lay. All of them are easy to get to, and none of them require an Apple certified specialist (I refuse to call them Geniuses) to remove or replace. Simply find your nearest computer geek, and they will EASILY be able to service your computer. But, Apple sees things differently, and they will void your warranty if you have someone else replace the battery for you. With regard to the other hardware, I don't know what their policy is, so I won't suggest you test it. I suspect my off-brand RAM will annoy them, but then I won't be taking it in for service unless something drastic happens.

The remaining hardware is pretty generic, mass produced components. All laptop vendors use the same few brands of disk drive, DVD drive, RAM, and other peripherals. In addition, the system's main board is filled with Intel reference components and generic parts. Nothing shocking here, so we'll move right along.

 

Software

I have used Mac OS X in the past on a few different machines. All of the ones I have owned were older generation hardware, so the operating system and software I would run were unbearably slow. Apple addressed this issue a long while ago by moving to the Intel CPU architecture, and they have clearly been happy with the results. As of now, OS X is a snappy operating system to use. Beyond OS X's speed, however, lies one of my least favorite "features" of the entire Mac culture- non-standardization.

OS X refuses to force developers to implement certain standard ways of doing certain things. An example would be the buttons on the top of every window. These buttons SEEM to have a standard use in every application- Close, Minimize, and "Make Bigger". However, implementing these buttons is actually left to the developer to do. Moreover, the "Make Bigger" button has no standard implementation like Maximize on EVERY OTHER OPERATING SYSTEM IN EXISTENCE! This button in particular sends me over the edge- why even offer it if it doesn't make the current window take up all of the real estate on the screen?!

My final rant regarding the OS X operating system (for now) is the perceived simplicity. An Apple PC is easy to use because there isn't very much to it. Options for power users are non-existent, or hidden in such a painful directory structure that you'll ignore them. This doesn't denote simplicity, by the way. This is Apple making it hard for you to change the way your computer works. Apple is the on-paper communism of the computer world. It seems wonderful and almost utopian, until you try to individualize. It's then that you notice the total dominance they have over your computing experience. And this strangle hold extends to all of their devices and software, from the iPhone to the Apple TV. You WILL use their product in the manner prescribed, or you will be punished.

 

Setup

Once you turn on your computer, Apple displays some welcome information, and guides you through the setup process. Note, however, there is no way to skip the stupid "Welcome" video that is played. You can only mute it. The actual setup process is very quick and painless. Total time is maybe 5 minutes for someone reading every screen. An important note is that you MUST fill out the personally identifiable information, and the "Where will you primarily use this computer" and "What best describes what you do" fields. To me, this is a bit annoying, because I know they are mining this data. It doesn't really gain them anything special, but it's just one more bit of data they are collecting.

 

Conclusion

I don't think an Apple PC is the right choice for me. I do recognize, however, that people should use the right tool for the right job. If your Mom and Dad want a simple PC that will get them on the internet for email and web browsing, then a Mac may be the way to go. Then again, it may not. There is always the choice of "Other".

I still FIRMLY stand behind Ubuntu as my Operating System of choice, especially for computer novices! Software comes from trusted sources that are verified, which lessens the chance of installing a piece of badware. This is the new threat in computers today, and Apple has proven they are taking the same long road that Microsoft took- security by secrecy. I feel this is the wrong choice for them, but again I'm not surprised in any way.

I do look forward to learning a third computer platform, so I can offer help to those that may need it. Apple charges quite a bit for support, when most of my friends and family get it for free. So, who knows. Maybe in a year I'll like the system but hate the company. Anything is possible when Tom buys a Mac!!

Friday
Apr032009

Extents are better

More and more, modern filesystems are moving away from block-based filesystems and moving toward extent-based systems. What the heck does that mean? Well, on a very high level, this means data is stored on disk with less overhead, leading to better performance and more efficient use of disk space. Technically speaking, though, let's break it down...

Block-based storage

Block-based filesystem layouts are traditional, well tested, and old. Really old. The theory behind its operation is very simple- A chunk of data is used to describe a larger chunk of file data is stored. Information such as location, permissions, creation / modification / access time, and where on the disk the actual file data is store are stored in the filesystem block, telling your computer where and how to access file data. The files actual contents are stored elsewhere on disk, typically in chunks of 4KB. Each of these 4KB chunks of file data require a filesystem block, so for a 100MB file you need 25,600 filesystem blocks! Each of these filesystem blocks needs to be read to tell the computer how to read from one end of the file to another. The more your hard disk needs to search around for the location of filesystem and data blocks, the longer this whole process takes. Usually, this all happens very quickly, but there certainly are cases where it can take a very long time.

These filesystem and file data blocks also lead to a phenomenon known as file fragmentation. Simply put, fragmentation is caused by files being modified after they were initially created, or files being created on heavily fragmented disks. Fragmentation itself is simply the separation of file data blocks with regard to each other on disk. To best envision this, imagine going on a scavenger hunt across your town, collecting pages of a book before you could read it. On that scale, it could take you months to re-assemble something like Moby Dick! Don't worry, though. There's a better way!

 

Extend-based storage

An filesystem extent is much the same as a filesystem block, except that it describes a collection of data bytes instead of strictly sized blocks. In other words, an extent describes a section of a file. All of the same filesystem data is contained in an extent- disk location, file name, etc. But the largest difference is that it also contains the size of the segment of a file's data it describes. So, theoretically, if there is a section of your disk drive that contains 100MB of free space, a single extent could be used to describe a 100MB file! This is so much more efficient than block-based storage that there are very few filesystems not using extents today!

 

Visualizing it

So, some of you may not be able to envision all of this in your head. I'll be the first to admit the fact that it's weird that I can. For you, I've made graphical representations. In the image below, imagine the green blocks are filesystem blocks- the data that describes your file's contents. The red blocks are the actual data of your file.

Block-based file layout

Here we can see that there are several chunks of data used to describe your file's content, which has also been split up into multiple chunks. Remember that the disk needs to read each green block to know where and how to find a red block.

 

Now we look at extent-based storage. Again, the green square represents the filesystem data that describes your file's content, which is found in the red squares.

Extent-based file layout

Instantly, you see the stark contrast. There is less data wasted describing your files contents, which are laid out in a more contiguous manner. Since disks read contiguous data faster than data that is scattered around a disk, your benefit is two fold. You have to read less descriptor blocks, and you have to search around the disk fewer times for actual file data.

 

Wrapping it up

So, what does it all mean to you? Well, it means you can store larger and larger files on your disk drives with less and less overhead. It also means that data can be retrieved in a much quicker manner, and finally it means someone out there cares about how you spend the milliseconds in your life. After all, it's nice to know someone cares, right?

Friday
Mar132009

Upcoming Ubuntu 9.04 release

Canonical and the Ubuntu community will release the next version of Ubuntu Linux- codenamed Jaunty Jackalope. This new version will be coming with many new features, and quite a bit of polish on the surface. Some of these changes will cause issues for some people running in certain hardware situations, such as those that require the use of third-party drivers. Many vendors do work hard to get drivers available as soon as possible, and several are already packaged up with the testing releases, but there are still those that drag their heels.

New Features

  • Package Updates - As with all distribution version updates, there are a host of packages that get version updates. These range from common utilities to linked libraries. For details about updated packages, take a look at the jaunty-changes mailing list at https://lists.ubuntu.com/mailman/listinfo/jaunty-changes.
  • X.Org Server 1.6 - X.org is the underlying graphical system of Ubunbu Linux. Version 1.6 now ships with DRI2 to manage graphics rendering (including 3D), X Input 1.5 which allows automatic detection and configuration of input devices such as mice, keyboards, pens, touch screens, etc., A new pointer acceleration system, and RandR 1.3, which manages the resizing and rotation of screens. In addition to these updates, there are several smaller but no less critical changes. Many of these increase performance and stability across the board, and provide driver updates to more fully support new hardware versions.
  • Optimized font sizes - Ubuntu 9.04 will detect your display settings and automatically set your font's dot-per-inch size. This will make text more easily readable and consistently sixed across an array of devices. If you prefer a customized side, you can also manually set this value.
  • New notifications - I am personally excited about this feature. Ubuntu now offers a standardized notification framework to other applications, making notification messages appear and behave in a predictable way. To see a preview of these notifications, please check out this example on Mark Shuttleworth's blog.
  • Updated kernel - Jaunty will ship with kernel version 2.6.28. This kernel version comes with a long list of newly supported devices, EXT4 filesystem which makes disk access in most cases faster and more reliable, and Intel's new Graphics Execution Manager (GEM), which provides a new system for managing the memory of graphics systems. Naturally, quite a bit of work went into fixing bugs, updating existing drivers, and optimizing performance.
  • EXT4 filesystem - The EXT4 filesystem is an update to the EXT3 filesystem, but also so much more. EXT4 has been discussed at length on every Linux forum and benchmarking site, but the breakdown is this. Files are allocated in a new way, which makes creating and deleting significantly faster. This new allocation method also requires less data to describe files themselves. In addition, data is cataloged with 64bit addresses, which means the amount of usable storage is orders of magnitude larger than the number of devices you can attach to your system.

Unfortunately, a few features were cut. Most significant to me, personally, was the encrypted home directory. The basic rundown of this feature was that when you installed Ubuntu, it would ask you for a password and then create an encrypted directory in your home folder. This directory could be used to store sensitive documents, data, and things of the like. If your disk or computer were ever stolen, you didn't have to worry about that information getting into the wrong hands- without your password even the NSA wouldn't be able to access that data. Due to some "outstanding issues", the feature has been removed from the testing releases and will not be put into the final version for download.

In all, Ubuntu has been shaping up very nicely over the past few years that I've been using it. At this point, the system is completely ready for use by any computer user, and that is a claim I will stake my reputation on. There are very few situations where Ubuntu can not fully satisfy any need a computer user has, but just like switching from a PC to a Mac, you need to be ready to change the way you think about using computers.

If you haven't tried Ubuntu yet, I encourage you to head over to www.ubuntu.com, download a copy, and boot up a live-cd. This will allow you to try Ubuntu without installing it on your PC. If you like it, I say back up your data and take the plunge. If you don't, I'd love to hear what you feel is wrong with it.

Friday
Mar062009

We got your credit right here

This has got to be the best simple explaination of the current credit crisis I've seen so far. No hyperbolede, no taking sides. Just simple information on what set off the credit crisis here and abroad.


The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

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