Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Virtualisation in the server space

Recently I've had the chance to view VMWare (www.vmware.com) and HP's (www.hp.com.au) entries in the virtualisation market - through VMWare's ESXi server and HP's Blade servers and SAN systems. Prior to this presentation I'd only looked into virtualisation a little bit, concerns for server redundancy and the like preventing me from spending a lot of time looking into it, and also, the size and scope of the organisation I work for is insufficient for such things - or so I had thought.

I have about 10 servers under my direct control and of these, 6 could be virtualised. Thinking about it going forward, in 3 to 5 years when these servers are due for replacement, buying 2 servers and a small SAN will cost less than the 6 new servers and provide the same services. At the end of the day, I think that's what it is all about - same services (or better), with uptime being up in the 5 nines range and cost-effective hardware/software. I've been a fan of VMWare's virtualisation stuff for several years, solely through the VMWare desktop range. Running multiple operating systems and applications on a single development machine was lots of fun. Back in the day (5 odd years ago) RAM was pricey and so was disk space so the VM's were pretty little.

Now you can run whole server instances in a file and then slip that file between servers depending on load requirements and whatever other fancy things you want to do - such as bringing one physical server down for updates and maintaining all your VM's on another server. Absolutely amazing stuff - especially when you combine it with blade technology and have dozens of servers sharing one big SAN all in the same rackspace. Truly incredible. Pretty complicated too I think as well, remembering where everything is going.

The new Blade servers from HP look very impressive too - they've done a lot of work on cooling and on cabling and everything is redundant with backup from at least one module exactly the same. Of course, when I saw those big fancy Blade servers I thought to myself - why virtualise? You could have a netboot install of a server ready to rock at a moment's notice and be back up and running in a very short time, especially if you combine the server with Microsoft's ASR technology and tape backup. There is so much chance for overkill it's every enterprise geek's wet dream. There were quite a few geeks at the presentation that looked like they were in their happy place that's for sure.

The most important thing I took away from it all was that virtualisation in the server space has come a long way since I last looked into it and the offerings from both VMWare and HP are quite spectacular. Given my quite low funds though - I'm now looking into Linux's XEN virtualisation. If you're more interested in this (any virtualisation for that matter) there is a lot of stuff on the interwebs. Mind you don't clog up your tubes! :-)

Waiting for Windows 7

OK, so we're starting to see some peeks at Windows 7. Check this out at ars technica: http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20081028-first-look-at-windows-7.html The first screen shots of Windows 7. I'm not particularly interested in it at the moment, I'm more interested in the whole "What do I do with my 8 year old Windows XP now?"

There are several options and as a Sys Admin I get more than a few questions about what to do as Windows XP ages gracefully into oblivion. Obviously the wonderful Windows Vista is an option, as is the various distributions provided by the gifted GNU/Linux community. With Windows 7 slated for a late 2009 (probably 2010) release should users be holding out for it as their hardware ages and their PC's become due for renewal? And for businesses that have laboriously got themselves into a nice 3 year PC replacement cycle, what do they go for?

Honestly at this point I'd point them at Novell's Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. There is no way I'd suggest Windows Vista at this point. It is such a massive resource hog, plays poorly with legacy applications and just seems to be a slapped together and rushed out the door operating system. It should be noted I run Vista on several machines, and have a couple of machines out there with regular users running Vista and honestly, they give me no positive feedback on it. On the other hand, I've put Ubuntu and OpenSuSE on people's desktops and they have really liked them - especially on older machines where the processor is only a P4 with a 1GB of RAM.

So the question really is - wait for Windows 7 and hope for the best OR deploy Vista to the desktop? It's not a nice question at all. I'll admit to feeling burnt by Vista - sure it has some nice features but by crikey it can be frustrating to get it going in the right direction at times. I've rarely had issues with the various Linux dizzies I've installed and Windows XP, for all it's faults, has been a good OS from both a systems view and a users view. Obviously security is paramount with XP, but at least it works - and it works on a lower hardware spec than Vista. With the economy going spastic and the Australian dollar declining versus the US Dollar (and how does that happen when the greenback is in such turmoil with obvious poor management and leadership???) PCs are getting more expensive again. Boo hiss.

If Windows 7 requires even more grunt than Vista I see it being out of reach for a lot of users for at least a year past it's release date. As to Vista I'm going to try and pretend it never happened and keep it out of the workplaces I'm involved in. What are you going to do?

Monday, 27 October 2008

Review: The Soldier's Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb

An odd thing happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was out and about when I found myself with 10 minutes to spare. Why not pop in the bookshop and see what they had to offer. I found the final two books of the Soldier's Son trilogy - the first book had languished on my bookshelf under a self-imposed ban until I got the final two. With a widening grin I grabbed both of them and started the trilogy that night.

It should be said I've been a huge fan of Robin Hobb, I love her other trilogies and have waited for the final books to come out. It was worth it.
The writing style is immersive as always, and builds a believable world for the main protagonist, Nevare Burvelle, to run around in. The rich details of his life and the amazing twists and turns it takes are vividly rendered by Hobb's superb narrative. Writing from the first person perspective must be challenging at times, without the ability to jump to another place or time and fill in the back story, but Hobb does it well and as the character learns key events, his perception of what is happening fills the story for us.
Something I've always been opposed to in fantasy books has been guns and normally I avoid them when they come up with it. This book, however, includes them in a very natural way, combining the chivarly of the Knighthood with the tactics of long rifles and clutch pistols. The "Old" nobles and the "New" nobles show the changes in the society and the effect the new technology is having - but all told, it's the magic of the world and the Old Gods that have the true control. Hobb's weaving of these elements is superb and there were several long nights where I read until the wee hours, drawn so deeply into the tale that I forgot what time it was and only surrendered to sleep when my eyes stopped focusing. In my view that's the sign of a damn good book.
I was very pleased to note that the series wound everything up at the end. I was able to put the final book down with great satisfaction and knowledge that the story - or rather the bulk of the exciting stuff - was pretty well finished. There have been several other writers out there (Robert Jordan I'm looking at you) who leave things hanging at the end of a 600 page book and you wonder what is to happen next, will there be more or not? The Soldier's Son trilogy has none of that and wraps up wonderfully. I read for enjoyment and this series certainly provided that. Bravo Robin Hobb - I look forward to your next books with great anticipation.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Review: Fluxbuntu on the Dell L400

Readers will remember that some time ago I purchased a Dell L400 Latitude second hand for about $200 bucks. Great little machine, runs a cut down version of XP happily and is all good. For some time now I've been struggling to find a distribution of Linux that I'm happy with to run on this little machine. Orginally I had SuSE running on it, then I tried Puppy Linux, DSL, Vector Linux 5.9 Lite and the lighter version of Ubuntu 8.04. I just wasn't quite happy with any of them. Following a comment made on my blog yesterday I thought I'd give Fluxbuntu a try and see how it goes.

As you can tell from it's name, Fluxbuntu is an Ubuntu derivative, running the Fluxbox window manager. The installation was quite easy (as it usually is with Ubuntu), although it was the more command line version of the install than the flashy graphical installation. This is no problem to me, because unlike many out there, I don't mind a bit of hacking with the command line and I can handle fdisk or cfdisk without trouble. 

Naturally, all the appropriate drivers were supplied for the hardware and the installation ran quite smoothly. It correctly detected and configured X and everything else. On reboot, the system started up and away we go. The boot process was a little slow, but I'm wagering I can pare that down without trouble. 

Fluxbuntu is based on Ubuntu 7.10 and I imagine that when 8.10 is released, they will update the distribution to that version. I expect a straightforward upgrade. Given the dearth of applications provided for Ubuntu and Debian there is of course no difficulty in installing whatever software you are happy with. I don't mind Abiword (which is installed by default) and I'm just starting to play with Kazehakase (the web browser). It started up pretty quickly - not bad for a PIII-700! About the only thing I'm struggling with is our proxy here at work. It can be a finicky thing at times.

As usual, I rebooted the system and test entry into Windows (to make sure it still works). Thankfully it does and Fluxbuntu had correctly set Grub up to allow for the extra partition. I noted that it had updated the kernel (twice) during the first round of updates and grub reflects that. I'll have to edit it later and tidy it up a little bit.

Overall, I'm happy for the moment with Fluxbuntu. I'll play with it for a few days and post an update on how I'm going with it. If you've been using Fluxbuntu for a while and have any tips to share - by all means do so in the comments!

Monday, 20 October 2008

Finishing up a job

Well, I've just resigned from my existing place of employment. Ironically I've done myself out of a job. When I started there was a *lot* to do - the network was a very organic thing, without meaningful or comprehensive backups, there were servers that were rebooting without warning or explanation and the desktops, don't let me start on the desktops!

So I built a new AD domain, put in new servers, replaced all the desktops, got LCDs on all the desktops and implemented fairly comprehensive backup/recovery solutions across the servers. All in all, fair better than when I arrived. Problem is, apart from some desktop support type stuff and the normal server maintenance I don't have a lot to do. The Debian GNU/Linux servers I've installed require minimal attention, while the Windows server (and usually they require a lot more time) are running very happily. I have used defence in depth to protect the network, rather than a hard outer shell and a soft middle as so many networks tend to have.

So why leave? I'm bored to be honest. It's time for new challenges. The lure of new work, new place and people is strong and while I'm not a particularly ambitious person, nor am I driven by money, I am pushed by my curiosity and the environment here isn't that interesting any more.

Often when people leave an organisation they either leave it well or badly. I intend to leave things as up to date and in a good position for the next person to look after it. Having come into organisations and seen the mess that was left by an employee who couldn't wait to go, I refuse to do that to someone else. It's really just wrong. Even though it's kinda boring stuff that remains, I'm working to get it all done.

Something I have noticed is that when you leave a job, or are in the process of doing so, people tend to treat you differently - it feels like you've pulled yourself out of the current that is the workplace and you're standing on the riverbank watching it go by. The busy concerns everyone else has, once so relevent to you, are no longer applicable and you can be much more objective about what's happening. If you could apply this to life in general - this extra awareness of things - I believe it would be quite useful. A detached view can help with understanding and problem solving. I've certainly noticed that a few of the ongoing problems here have become far easier to understand in the last few days. Although I haven't solved those problems, at least I have begun to think of ways to get past them. Sadly though, some people write you out of their awareness and interest once you tender your resignation and I feel sorry for them. Their view of life is so narrow that if you're not part of it, you become like a ghost to them. I realise this is probably their way of coping with change. Others though talk keenly about what you are going to, how things will be different and sometimes ask for advice on where they might go to find something different. These people never last long and move on too - following their dreams for something different.

Ah well, 9 working days to go and then it's off to a brave new (working) world!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Appalling Palin

What was McCain thinking with Palin? And what the hell are Americans thinking with Palin? I know that here in the US we have idiots like Julia Gillard, but at least she has spent time in the political system at the top end, not just in state politics or even worse, as a mayor of a city and claiming that to be a justified credential for the top job. This Palin person seems to be uneducated and completely unaware of any broader issues. I mean honestly, if you can *see* a place you are not an expert on it. I can *see* the airport - does this mean I'm qualified to be an air traffic controller? But enough of such easy attacking.

I read a fair bit of stuff on the net and I see other women reacting to Palin very positively. Have they taken leave of their senses? They do not seem to be questioning her credentials for the position she hopes to assume, i.e. Vice President of the US. Sure Dick Cheney is a meglomaniac and all, but he at least has the ability to make his crazy ideas work. Palin doesn't seem to have any ideas and appears to be there to attack Obama. When Australian news anchors said that she did well in the debate against Joe Biden, Obama's VP candidate I laughed out loud. I saw the debate and frequently buried my head in my hands with embarrasment for Palin. She just doesn't have a clue - and what's worse is, no-one else wants to point it out! I guess it's like Al Gore. He was too smart for them. Sarah Palin is about the same intelligence as the mob and as such, they are comfortable with that. Let's have the country run by someone who isn't much brighter than we are! It's not as if her job is bigger, or has more responsibility than "Joe Six-pack" does. 

This is a rant and it's a rant at stupidity which I cannot abide. Every time I find myself being stupid about something it's makes me very unhappy indeed. It's an interesting juxtaposition though, Obama vs McCain, Biden vs Palin, New Ideas (including *gasp* diplomacy) vs Entrenched Old Ideas (mostly about using force to negotiate). New vs Old energy. Although Palin is young, she has an old mindset. A "we're the most powerful country on earth, let's blow some shit up! Hoo UH!"

Personally I think a vote for McCain/Palin is a vote for the past and for the ways things are currently run (i.e. Bush/Cheney) and a vote for Obama/Biden is a vote for the future and for the chance at something better.

It reminds me of this old adage: Insanity is defined as continuing to act in the old way and expecting something different to happen (or words to that effect).

*Update*

It now appears that the initial positive upswing of support for Palin is failing miserably as people realise she is unqualified for the job. More people are looking at McCain and saying: "He's pretty old, and he's had cancer - do we really want Palin as the President?" A damned interesting question I think.

Financial Bail out

For anyone in the money markets the last month or so has been a devastating one. I've been reading a bit about the way this whole thing started, with the bad debts in the USA and how this is now flowing on to the rest of the world. The biggest thing that irks me is the lack of responsibility being taken by people.

Take the people at the bottom line of things - those people who took out mortgages for homes that they could never effectively repay. Yes, during the first 6 or 12 months when they were paying 1% interest back they could afford it. When the honeymoon was over and their mortgage repayments became what they should be - well then they were screwed and many choose to walk away on their bad debts. Accordingly, the over-priced homes they had bought were then sold for less than the purchase price, so the debt wasn't covered by it and the lenders had to take a write off. Consider the massive inflation in home prices that was caused by all these cheap mortgages and people paying far more than a home was worth. It turns out this is a widespread thing, and it's happening in Australia too.

Deregulation of the financial sector is probably partly to blame, but the greed of these people in the financial sector is more to blame. It's not about responsible stewardship of people's money - it's about how much they can make and how fast they can do it. The major banks here in Australia are posting record profits. The executives are getting massive bonuses. If the market falls here like it has in the US and the Australian government bails them out that is the worst kind of financial mismanagement that there is. The record profits and bonuses should go back into the banks to keep them solvent. The people's money should be protected - both people with money in the banks and the taxpayers who are being asked to foot the bill (and by and large they're the same people).

In the US no-one is taking responsibility for the fall. Bailing them out only serves to indicate that you can do this sort of thing and get away with it. What a load of shit! It's like murdering someone and walking away with the smoking gun in your hand and a nation of witnesses. The US government should be ashamed of themselves. A cleansing needs to happen - all the bad debt, all the bad operators and all the bad investment groups need to be shutdown. That's the point of letting them crumble. Yes there will be some financial hardship for the people with their money tied up in this but it will pass. The cycle will continue and hopefully, the next loop around will be a better one that before. I've always refused to put money in the stock market. I can't see the pay-back on betting on confidence in companies and really, that's what it is. A company can still make products to a high standard but their share price won't reflect that - it'll go up and down based on the most absurd premises - the company's CEO shagged someone else's missus or something ridiculous. I wish I were joking. 

The worst thing that could have been done was to provide a safety net for the people who have caused the financial melt down in it's current state. They are not being held accountable for their actions and I read recently that in the US they are not even being prosecuted! What the fuck!? Let's just allow them to get off without responsibility. I suppose that's the Bush way. I wonder if it will be the Rudd way as well?