Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Getting into it with Microsoft Azure Cloud Computing

For work I've been playing with Azure a bit - and if you're not aware of what Azure is I'll explain. It is Microsoft's cloud computing offering similar in many ways to Amazon EC. I quite like it - especially because they give little not-for-profits like us $3500 USD of sponsorship to run stuff. It has allowed us to make a few tentative steps into the cloud space and expand our operating horizons.

As a beginner with Azure I wanted to just run up a basic machine and it allowed me to do that pretty easily. The wizards are straightforward and it's a matter of understanding the different terminologies to get to what you want from the system. The basic components of an Azure box are:
  • the VM itself
  • network interface card
  • disk
  • network security group
  • Public IP address. It looks a bit like this:










The Virtual Machine is set up along a series of different options - you can guess most of them. Number of CPUs, RAM and the system disk plus any data disks. There are plenty of present options and it's pretty neat that you can jump around with them. I initially had a couple of our VM's set a bit high and dropped them down. It required a restart and that was it.

With any virtual machine - particularly in the cloud - it's absolutely CRITICAL to understand how much it will cost per month to run the thing. The CPU/RAM and Disk all have different costs, as do backup solutions and other bits you can add. Most of them only cost you money when the machine is running though. For us, we're looking at running some pretty sizeable Windows Servers but only during business hours (8am to 6pm) Monday to Friday. So 210 hours a month instead of 600+. It is a much cheaper way to do business and worth checking out if your budget is tight.

Back to Azure. Once the machine is up and running, then the management is done by SSH or RDS or whatever you'd normally work from. Console access is available, which for us was really important - I was using SSH Keys for authentication but the Azure side kept changing which was fucking frustrating. Had to keep deleting the old key and then fixing it, and then the auth key wouldn't work. I eventually gave up and went back to good old fashioned usernames/passwords.

Although this isn't ideal, the firewall setup is straight forward and comprehensive. My VMs are not accessible from any network apart from our own (which has made home support a non-event). It protects our assets that little bit more and so it's a good time investment to work on. Here's a tip - if you're using Let's Encrypt to provide you with SSL Certs, then you will periodically need to open Port 80 to the world for that to run the tests against. I say that, knowing full well that on one server it's 100% the case and on another it's not. WTF? I dunno it's weird but anyway, this is the world we live in. I'd show you more of the interface, however there is a too much proprietary stuff there. You can sign up for a free Azure trial though which is pretty great. I recommend doing that to see what you can find. There are free offerings available too which are very useful for evaluating their products.

I have been impressed by Azure over the last 8 months of using it. I find the interfaces to be straightforward and the integration with Office365 to be pretty neat too. Give it a try and see how it compares for you against Amazon or Google Cloud (which is a very different beast indeed).

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Windows 10 Enterprise Eval - gotchas

After an annoying turn of events where my Windows 10 Enterprise USB drive failed, attempts to install Win10 onto a computer failed miserably. I turned to the net and managed to get my hands on Microsoft's Windows 10 Enterprise Evaluation. I have an enterprise key so I thought - cool! Here's the opportunity to get it going and to then upgrade the license later. Full install, patched etc and all is swell. Except when I try to upgrade.

I straight up tried changing the licence key only to get a variety of errors, most of which are pertaining to the activation system being unavailable. The I try this: https://winaero.com/blog/upgrade-windows-10-evaluation-to-full-version-easily/ but it doesn't work either.

Next I'll try this: http://www.edugeek.net/forums/windows-10/174594-upgrading-windows-10-enterprise-90-evaluation-full.html

And if all else fails, in goes the bootable USB I've now created. If only I'd had this in the first instance I would not be writing this note to myself (and to you).

If only I'd found this: https://www.howtogeek.com/250503/how-to-upgrade-to-windows-10-enterprise-without-reinstalling-windows/ first! I might have been able to dodge much of the problem in the initial stages. Learn from my pain :-)

Friday, 7 December 2018

2018 Assistance and Access Bill

This is a cross post from my less technical blog at https://abeath.blog

Passed the Senate last night, rushed through in a day by a bunch of politicians that probably haven't read any of the submissions or listened to anyone in IT about the impact on privacy these encryption changes will make. Man it makes my blood boil. There was an article on Business Insider about it quoting a software consultant in Melbourne Tom Sulston and he summed it up really well:
1. The bill is bad for security because encryption keeps us safe from criminals. This bill will make it easier for them to hack us.
2: The bill is bad for jobs because software companies will choose not to work in Australia, as this bill is fundamentally incompatible with GDPR.
3: The bill is bad for workers, as it opens up all sorts of penalties if we conscientiously object to being drafted into the security services.
4: The bill is bad for democracy as it will make it easier for a sitting government to access the private communications of journalists, opposition politicians, unions, businesses, et al.
5: The bill is bad for the economy because global consumers will choose digital services that come from countries that are not threatened by Australian legislation.
There are clearly plenty more reasons why the bill is terrible, but these are some big, big problems.
https://twitter.com/tomsulston - see his feed for more stuff
I read this and can't help but agree. If I'm a criminal I would be super happy about this decision. You can be damn sure those guys will find open source software that isn't screwed the Australian Government and lock their shit up tight while the rest of us have defective software and devices allowing all and sundry to mess with our stuff.
This is a sad day indeed for Australia and we are rightfully the laughing stock of the technical world. What is worse is that this Bill was passed in order to stop another Bill being defeated (and this Bill is to get kids of Nauru for medical treatment. I'm not going to comment on that - I'm cranky enough with this other thing). So stupid politics screws the pooch royally here and there's only the House left to amend it.
Saints preserve us (I sound like little old Southerner). I am so disappointed in this decision and despite having written to my local member (I missed out on a submission to the stupid Bill thing) on several occasions I am very unhappy with this result. I'm also pissed at the behaviour of our elected officials trivialising something like this into name calling and bullshit behaviour when it is so important. Telling the opposition leader he is a "a clear and present threat to the safety of Australians" while they are looking at the Bill in order to guilt it through is really not good enough. If the Bill and the reasons behind it are solid, then an ad hominem attack like this is unnecessary and paints those elected in a worse light.
And while I'm on the soap box law enforcement needs to take a good look at themselves too. They're proposing to weaken encryption for everyone in order to catch a few people. Guess what idiots? More people will be negatively affected by this than the positive outcomes. You're weakening my encryption, my wife's and my kids to catch criminals. How about investing in some good old fashioned police work and updating the way you pursue criminals rather than screwing up things for everyone? I wonder if they have even looked carefully out the outcomes of this legislation past the echo chamber they live in. It's very disappointing and once again I'm considering moving to the moon.
Update:
I have to add to this after reading some more stuff about the Bill online. There were 173 amendments put forward to this Bill hours before it passed. The Senate were asked to consider 173 different amendments. I can't highlight this enough. 173 is a shite load. Surely this is an example of how flawed the bill was? Here is one of the Senator's takes on it:
It's fine, they're only asking for 173 amendments to be moved together. 173. Amendments most of us only saw an hour or two ago. 173.
It's a complete shitshow #AAbill #encryption #Auspol
— Senator Jordon Steele-John (@Jordonsteele) December 6, 2018
Twitter....
Come on! Seriously! Further to this, I've looked at the Bill and I'm gravely concerned that the current accreditation we have to have to work with the Government departments might be incompatible with this Bill and I could go to gaol for denying the Government fucking up our security in order to have the accreditation to work with the same Government. Is that not completely stupid? Welcome to Australia....
Rant over.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

A month with the 2017 MacBook Pro

I reviewed the new MacBooks awhile ago and I wasn't all that impressed by them, in particular I was critical of the keyboard and the trackpad. Over the last month, however, I've been using one full time and I've come to accept the keyboard and even enjoy using the big, super sensitive and useful trackpad. So here's what we're talking about:

Latest version of macOS, and a pretty solid machine spec to boot. I have to say the Retina display is really nice. I can happily look at it all day without any eye strain issues or headaches as a result. The machine itself is a silver 13" MacBook, no touch bar or any of that silliness and was around $2000, plus accessories. I managed to get a USB-C adaptor with HDMI, USB3 and USB-C charging and access ports for this laptop. It's pretty cool actually but I do have to plug it into the computer and then reboot it to get the HDMI to work. This gives me essentially a dock to use, with my Time Machine backup drive, USB to ethernet adaptor (our Wi-Fi can be sketchy) and a USB-3 hub to give me some extra ports. Having 2 USB-C and the headphone port only has been a challenge to work with. I have so many adaptors that aren't compatible anymore! AAARGH!

All the specs can be found here: https://www.apple.com/au/macbook-pro/specs/ as well as details of the machine itself.



Currently I'm using several laptops for various purposes - my beloved Lenovo T430, a Lenovo E560 (for development purposes) and a HP "Sleekbook". They are running Windows 7, Windows 10 and Linux Mint respectively and give me a pretty good comparison across all devices. The MacBook Pro is better than all of them.

Firstly, macOS is great. I love it - all the power of the *nix operating systems, with a polished desktop well supported by quality apps. Mint is great, and the polish gets better and better, but macOS still has a solid lead on it. Especially with Time Machine - I love this for backups. It's really tremendous in that respect. Windows 7 and 10 are just... well Windows operating systems. I've come to appreciate Windows 10 for some of its features, but it's still able to piss me off with it's restarts at inopportune times and various other behaviours that shits me. Additionally, I hate not having a native terminal to manage my Linux servers with. You may not experience this, but I surely do.

The keyboard, while not the best in class, does have backlit illumination that just works. Neither of the Lenovo's does this (the T430 has the top mounted light which has been handy) and the Sleekbook works most of the time... but the Mac works every time. As soon as I touch the keyboard, on come the lights. I love it. Just perfect. Not as good to type on as the Lenovo's though. When it comes time to write a million word thesis, I'll be reaching for those machines that's for sure, but for day to day work (including writing the occasional several thousand word report) the MacBook will do the job.

Monitor is clearly the best on the MacBook. Second is the Sleekbook, then the E560 and finally the T430. The Retina display is lovely to behold and has such rich colours... ah it's very nice indeed.

Specs are good, but really - an i7 or an i5 is going to give me the same results for the stuff I'm doing. No hardcore processing work, no games (I have an Xbox for that) and relatively few heavy work loads on any machine. 8GB of RAM is a minimum spec for me now - that's a requirement for operation I think. The E560 has 16GB and I managed to get an extra 500GB SSD into it too, but it's a much bigger beastie than these other little machines.

I've adapted to using Outlook 2019 for Mac and flit between that, Apple Mail and Calendar. I like having the separate app for Calendar open on another screen to keep abreast of what's coming up.

Overall it's been a positive experience - especially with the integration between my MacBook, iPad and iPhone. Everything ties together so neatly and I'm now trapped.... doomed to be stuck in the Apple ecosphere. I don't really hate it though - there is a lot to like and I can always use another laptop if I feel the need to bust out of my comfort zone. Traveling with the MacBook has been good to - it's light and easy to maneuver with tonnes of battery life and good sound (for movies in the hotel room). Well worth a purchase if you like Mac and can drive macOS with some degree of confidence. Make sure you buy the adaptor (I think mentioned in a previous post) to really get the most of this great little machine.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Office 2019 vs Office 2016 - a comparison

So with my new Mac has come a new suite of productivity tools from Microsoft - Office 2019. Yes I was indeed reluctant to try this out, but here it is. First, a couple of comparisons between the ribbons in Outlook:


Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.27.34 pm
Outlook 2019 Ribbon (Mac)




Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.30.21 pm
Outlook 2016 Ribbon (PC)

And the Calendar part of Outlook:
Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.28.48 pm
Outlook Calendar 2019

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.30.33 pm
Outlook Calendar 2016

Fundamentally it all handles the same, but the UI change is quite marked. In fact, this is reflected across all the suite - Word, Excel and Powerpoint all have tidier interfaces on the Mac. Whether this is reflective of the difference in styles between Apple and Microsoft or not I'm unsure about. It's definitely tidier and less busy - this appeals to me. The actual driving of the applications is largely the same.

Here is the compose window in a new email:
Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.28.18 pm
New Email Outlook 2019

It's all pretty much the same, but you can see a more clean approach has been taken with the newer applications. I like it. I don't like Outlook as a rule, but I like this version of it better than previous versions.
The proof is in the utility - and both versions of Office are very useful. I'm still bewildered at times by the array of things you can do in Excel - it's one very full featured piece of software, and I probably will never use all of the stuff even in Word - which is probably why my preference is a simpler text editor like Pages.

Here's a snippet from Excel and you'll note that next to the green "Maximise" button in the top left hand corner is what looks like a little notebook - this is the File menu where new file etc all live:

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.40.39 pm
Excel 2019

Again it's a slightly cleaner interface than 2016, but everything is there. With all the "File" activities hidden in that new button, there's nothing really missed out on. An Excel aficionado will probably say there are a million things not there but I'm not that guy.

Compare that ribbon to the Numbers ribbon:
Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 1.43.37 pm
The simplicity of Numbers


It's a big UI (User Interface) difference. Given the rather limited activities I execute in spreadsheets, either one is suitable for my needs. I know that Numbers isn't adequate for some of the guys here at work who use Excel in extraordinary ways, but for the regular punter I think you'll find Numbers to be adequate.
At any rate, I thought you might find this interesting to see a brief comparison between the versions of Office and how different they look on different OS platforms. I can only hope that Microsoft release a version for Linux and I'll compare that one too!
I've cross posted this to my regular blogging account, so if you're interested in my wider range of thoughts check it out: abeath.blog

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review: Linux Mint 19 "Tara"

Since I changed jobs and no longer use my big Linux box day to day, it's been harder to find the time to work with Linux, and in particular Mint. I love Mint and I've been delighted to use it for many years now. When I took my work PC home, and fired it up I was poignantly reminded how much I enjoyed working in the Linux desktop world and how I'd missed it. Windows 10 just doesn't compare and even Mac OS X (while very good) still lacked a certain something.

I've been using Mint 18 for some time and enjoyed it, so when I finally caught up to checking out "Tara" I was very interested to see what the go is. Here is the link to the release blog post about it: https://blog.linuxmint.com/?p=3597 It's a Long Term release (LTS) so it'll be good until 2023. I've found Mint to be updated and looked after for the full term of their LTS releases - something to commend the team on. Now, what to run the test install on?

I managed to get my hands on a 4 year old HP ENVY TouchSmart Ultrabook (or "Sleekbook" 14-k124tx is the model) for this review. It's stats are fairly impressive for an older machine: Intel Core i7-4500U, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD drive. It has a touch screen, and dual video adaptors (low power Intel and nVidia for the good times), and multi touch mouse pad. This one had a dodgy Windows 7 install on it that kept blue screening, even with a fresh install of Windows 7. I've been running Mint as my primary workstation on it for several days now with nary a worry.

Into the review then:

I booted into the LiveUSB version of Mint for a quick poke around. Everything looked the goods so I chose "Install".

The installation of Mint was flawless - it identified the UEFI nature of the boot system, and asked if I wanted to change it around, or was I happy to blow away the previous install and just go with Mint. I let it get rid of Windows and move through the familiar installation process taking the default options for everything. I like how it is specific about the encryption option for the disk leading to a more secure install.

First boot was not long after and very fast - particularly on this rather lean little machine.

The initial impression was that the presentation of the desktop environment was polished and had the usual, rather plain theme applied. I'm more than happy with this though as I find too much flash gets in the way of doing what I need to. The new crop of desktop backgrounds are lovely - lots of colour and sharp imagery to enjoy. It was very fast too - launching Firefox took mere moments and everything was quick.

I was delighted to see the operating system ask me if I wanted to set up backups when I first tried to run Mint Update. This is a very clever idea and uses a built in wizard to run the flamboyantly named "Backup Tool". Not only will this use rsync to back up one's files, but it will also backup your software selection (and restore both groups of files as required). Given this computer is a test bed and I expect to mess around with it a fair bit, I didn't bother setting it up. The initial update was smooth and a quick reboot got me back into a fully patched machine.

Uh oh though - no wireless! Aargh! This machine has some fairly specialised hardware and requires some third party apps. I've found this to be hit and miss at times in the past, but found it to be no real issue here:

In the background you can see one of the superb "Tara" backgrounds. Everything works now - WiFi and the nVidia drivers as well. I'm not sure if there really is a boost in the graphics as I'm only doing desktop stuff on it (and even then mostly web based activities) so check out a gamer's review for that sort of thing.

Another quick reboot (now up to 3) and good to go. Installed Chromium, nmap and a few other bits and bobs and all good. Mint is effortless to manage apps with - much like Debian and Ubuntu and this is a big part of the reason I like it.

The install base wasn't huge either. On a laptop like this, where a Windows 10 install can smash a 128GB disk in no time, the disk usage looks like this:

You can see that it's only 11GB for the whole install, and applications (and also my imaginative naming scheme for computers!).

With regards to usability and stability - Mint offers the usual round of suspects for desktop productivity - LibreOffice, VLC, Transmission, Firefox and the like. In the last few days of using Mint on this machine, there have been zero issues, no failures, no stoppages. This is on a machine recently removed from our fleet for stability problems! It wouldn't make a day without a BSOD on a fresh Windows install. Pretty good!

Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm not big on fancy pictures and stuff, just the meat of my thoughts and for what its worth - Mint is great. I was very happy with 18 and it's variants, and thus far, I'm very pleased with 19. For older computers, for computers kids will touch or for people willing to try something new, it is my choice for a Windows or Apple alternative. In fact, even if you're a power Windows user, it might be worth putting the ISO onto a USB and Live booting it for fun and seeing what it can do. Over a USB3 connection and a USB3 thumb drive it's very usable. The install from there is fast and simple.

*** Update to this post:

I've since upgraded my home PC to Mint 19. The desktop PC experience is every bit as good as the laptop experience and the straightforward in place upgrade from 18 to 19 was easy. There is a lot to love about this install from a user perspective. Get around it!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

osTicket Lessons - Filtering and Exchange


Here is a thing I’ve discovered and it will hopefully save someone else hours of time. 

I have osTicket installed, with IMAP enabled to download emails from our Exchange mail server into the system. I then have filters enabled to apply rules to these emails to automagically point them at the right team / department / user – we use osTicket for marketing, reporting and so on as well as for IT Support.

For example – reports@domain.com need to go the Reporting Department, not support. Seems simple right?

There is a problem though – I do not want to have 10 email accounts (and associated logins) set up for my osTicket emails. In an Exchange environment, you can’t just have a shared folder – it needs to have a full user account and an associated Exchange mailbox to use POP3 or IMAP and this costs us a CAL (Client Access License) every time. Frustrating! So I thought – let’s use an alias instead.
I called the actual user account something like ithelp@domain.com and then aliased reports@ to ithelp@. Emails sent to reports landed successfully at ithelp@ and it looked rosy.

Subsequent testing though proved to be very painful – the filters didn’t seem to be working and the emails being sucked into osTicket were going to the default Department. I experienced some frustration around this (and may have cursed a bit). After trying several different options with changes to the filters, I eventually looked at the headers and had an unpleasant find. When one sends an email internally to an Exchange mailbox via an alias, it drops the alias off in the headers! So my emails to reports@ were being reported as having been sent to ithelp@ and osTicket was accurately processing these emails based on that. AARGH!

Poking around on the net proved fruitless – partly because of the complexity in our set up, but I did find a work around. I removed the alias and instead created a distribution group with one member – ithelp@ and an email address of (you guessed it) reports@. The filter now works properly and it’s all good. I still have a single, aggregating email account costing me one CAL, and a several distribution groups that keep it all hanging together.

I think using G Suite won’t have this effect, but I don’t have G Suite at this time, only Exchange. 

Here’s hoping that if you’re looking for this answer, I’ve saved you an hour or two.