Sunday, October 3, 2010

The inevitable happened - total data loss

You've heard it a thousand times. "Backup your data!" Well when you have a 400Gb harddrive filled and nowhere to backup to, you're screwed.

One fine day I figured I'd play with my BIOS settings for no apparent good reason. I'm searching around and see this nifty drive chipset setting that was disabled. The options were Disabled, RAID, and SATA. Well I had 3 SATA drives plugged in, so why is this thing on "disabled"... hmmm let me change that. I rebooted and my machine hung. I reset, my machine went a little further but kept complaining that a device was not ready "(Ready=0)". Well let me disable, I figured. I rebooted and again it hung. What I had done was mistakenly enabled SATA power to my drives when they already had MOLEX power supplied. It turned out that this can be (and definitely was) a very bad thing.

Luckily my 320GB drive that stored "My Documents" among other things was safe, but my drive containing 4 years of collecting Martial Arts videos was dead. I also had quiet a few CD backups (ISO) -- about 360GB of data is lost. I tried several software recovery options intermittently over a few days; however, it was a complete fail.  I checked into data recovery options and the rates are phenomenally and outrageously expensive. It's a "no go" -- I'm not paying a grand to restore what is 80% re-downloadable and truth be told, i'd never have the time to review all those martial videos anyhow. I'll just find the important ones again. Yes, some of the data is irreplaceable. I had a backup ISO containing files my father created. His "My Documents" and CadKey drawings. My father passed away in 2004. I backed up the data and wiped the computer. It was irreplaceable data that I'd preferred to keep.

So this post was written for two reasons: One, to frighten you into backing up your data! Two, offer some backup solutions.

I had, in the past, wanted to get a "real" NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. I had a FreeNAS running, which is very nice, but it required me to keep an old Pentium 4 1.2Ghz PC powered on 24/7 with only 80GB+30GB storage -- not nearly enough. I could have gotten a replacement drive, whether internal or external, but what happens when that fails? Total loss again -- and drives do fail. There is also services like offering unlimited backup for $55 a year, but how many continuous days do you think it would take to upload hundreds of gigs of data?

I was aching to get a NAS. There are many brands.  Some too cheap, some too expensive. I kept researching I had some limited experience with iOmega's ix stores.  Very nice devices, but they were a bit overpriced and I understood the drive replacements can only be bought from iOmega. I ultimately decided on a Synology product that had good feedback on and has some good features. The product I wanted had to have a high capacity and fault tolerance. I did not want a single drive solution. I wanted to mirror or RAID. I could have chosen a two drive solution for mirroring, but I felt that expandability was necessary. My final choice, although still very pricey, had room for growth and steered clear of the truly over-priced vendors.

My latest purchase is a Synology DiskStation DS410j. It is a 4 bay personal NAS unit supporting up to 8TB, yes eight terabytes by using four 2TB drives. Although in the past I've always opted to buy Western Digital drives, Newegg's customer feedback reported many dead-on-arrival WD's, and Seagate's, and just about every other brand. The best feedback for 2TB drives was for Samsung. I don't particularly like Samsung, but the feedback spoke for itself. My new drives are the Spinpoint F4 2-terabyte, eco-green, 5400, 8.9ms drives.  They are not the fastest, but i knew this was a for the NAS unit which was mostly limited by the network speed.  So I am a proud owner of a Synology 410j with two 2TB mirrored drives -- I just couldn't afford four drives. Of course, I can always add a drive or two, and as I understand it, seamlessly upgrade to RAID 5.  The 410j was discounted to $329 and the drives were $119 each. has a nice write-up on the DS410j.

For those of you that in no way can afford to drop nearly $600, I'll share some other options with you.  As mentioned prior, allows unlimited online backup for $55 with the caveat of requiring the time of uploading.  This can be hellish on DSL or cable.

For those wanting a free online solution, I found which allows 50GB of free online storage, with the caveat of uploading via a java interface on a web-page.  There is also with 50GB free online storage that also allows a browser toolbar or windows application for uploading.  Again, with these services, upload/download speeds are limited by your type of internet service.

The cheapest local storage option would simply be to purchase an external USB drive, but of course there is no fault tolerance.  Although unlikely both your computer's harddrive and your external drive would fail at the same time, it is possible.  But for that matter so is failure of both drives in my NAS.  For me, I am more comfortable with having a dedicated unit for backups.  It also allows me to setup my family's machines to auto-backup -- A great convenience to save invaluable information.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Speed up your web-browser using a Ram-Disk (XP, OSX, Linux)

Background: Your web-browser be it Internet Explorer, Firefox, or other temporarily saves the viewed pages and images to it's cache. This cache resides on your hard-drive which generally is the slowest part of your computer. By changing this cache location to memory, you can significantly increase your browser speeds. If you are using a modern SSD (Solid State Drive) then this will not have a speed impact, but could reduce the number of writes to the SSD and therefore is also a good option.

I've found this technique while googling and have implemented it on each of my machines as a speedup technique.

I'll briefly cover Windows XP, Mac OSX, and Linux. Although this technique could be used with WinVista or Win7, I have been unable to find a FREE Ram-Disk software.

You can implement the configuration, and if you decide the benefit is nil, then it's easily reversible.

For Windows XP, there are several free Ram-Disk software, but I have had the least (if any) problems with VSuite RamDisk Free Edition. Install this software and create a RamDisk. I chose to assign drive letter Z: and will reference that here. You are welcome to use any available drive, but be sure to use that drive letter with the configurations to follow. A drive size of 64 or 128 MB is plenty sufficient for a web-browser cache. If you heavily use two or more browsers you could easily choose 256MB if your computer has 2GB or more RAM.

I'll explain how to configure Internet Explorer and Firefox. If you use another browser, there is certainly some information online to assist with your browser specific settings.

For Internet Explorer go to Tools>Internet Options>Browsing History>Settings>Move Folder. Make note of the curent folder name in case you wish to revert. For the Move Folder option, choose the RamDrive letter Z: and use a temp folder (i.e. Z:\temp ). While you are at it, change the Disk Space to use option to something more appropriate, i choose 64MB.

For FireFox 3+, enter "about:config" in the address bar. You'll see a warning screen, click the "I'll be careful" button. Right-click anywhere in the list of items and select New>String. Enter "browser.cache.disk.parent_directory" (no quotes), then enter your RamDrive letter and folder as the new value (i.e. Z:\temp). If you are using an older Firefox you may want to search first as i think the key name is different.

I doubt that you will want to revert back, but if so, then you can set Internet Explorer to the original folder that you noted. If you wish to reverse Firefox, simply delete the newly created key.

The same concept will work on Mac OSX. You can use Michaël Parrot's Esperance DV or Peter Hosey's MakeRAMDisk 1.0 to create a RamDrive.

Ubuntu users can use the existing ram-disk mount named "/dev/shm" as your cache folder. I use this one for every Ubuntu or Mint Linux machine I have. For other Linux distributions with kernel 2.4+, use the commands "sudo mkdir /mnt/ramdisk" then "sudo mount none /mnt/ramdisk -t tmpfs" to create a dynamically sizing RamDisk. This can likely be scripted into your startup. There are other resources available so research your preferred method.

On any older machine you should undoubtedly see a significant increase in browser speed. Newest machines may not see as much a boost, but you can be the judge of that.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Recommended Linux Distros -- Making a tough decision on which Linux to use.

EVERYONE has their own choices and opinions about which Linux Distro is best. This is simply another HUMBLE OPINION on which Linux Distribution to decide upon. There are literally thousands to choose, I have tried tens of tens, and these are my choice recommendations for a Linux Desktop.

COMPLETE NOOB: (or tired of Ubuntu and want a little more class)
If you are completely new or very novice, I suggest Linux Mint. Mint is easier and a bit more complete than Ubuntu, as it is based from the Ubuntu Distributions with added features and usability. Since it is Ubuntu based, expect updates slightly behind Ubuntu's releases, but the fine-tuning is already there for you.

AVERAGE JOE: (Today's most popular distribution)
If you have a shallow Linux background, you can start with Ubuntu. It's where I learned most of my experience in my second coming into Linux and I recommend it as a great way to start the fun. Ubuntu is highly modified and much easier than base distributions. It is Debian-based with many added features to make using Linux as an every-day desktop very easy.

If you've learned the basics and then some, and are tired of Ubuntu's random breakages, bugs, or user interfaces, then Debian is for you. It is King. There are several branches: Stable, Testing, and Unstable. For a good balance between stable and cutting edge, I always choose testing. There are usually ways to install cutting edge software within Debian regardless of which branch you use. However, I list this under "experienced hacker" with reason.

If all of the above Distros are just too power hungry, try CrunchBang. Previously Ubuntu-based and now Debian-based it's lightweight and quick as lightning. Using CrunchBang makes you the envy of all your dorky friends and upgrades you to an elite class of nerd.

The above mentioned Distros are ALL Debian. If you know commands in one, you know them in the others. The easy ones have done a great deal to lessen the pain such as automatically adding users to the sudoers file and adding paths to environment variable to make command line action easier. That and a hole bunch of eye-candy and applications give them modern pizazz. You could theoretically start with Debian and make your own super-distro. But why do what others have spent millions of dollars doing for you.

The real world work-force tends to use Red Hat Enterprise Linux. But for you and me, we're CHEAP. CentOS is binary compatible, if not equivalent. Updates are generally only a few weeks slower than the official Red Hat Enterprise distribution. If you need a solid, stable, commercial grade system, this is it.
Debian is a highly popular and extremely stable enterprise ready distribution. Be sure to use the stable branch of course.

I still like to distro hop. Some very interesting Distros I've come to enjoy and keep the newset copies of include Slitaz and TinyCore. Stick them in just about any computer boot from CD and you're running linux without even installing. Yes, most distros are LiveCD's lately, but these are super small and super quick. Burn a business-card CD and keep it in your wallet to show your family, friends, or boss just how cool you really are.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Top Things I install on a fresh Ubuntu 10.04 Installation.

0) 64bit fails to provide me with a functional ability, so I opt for 32bit.

1) Full update
sudo aptitude update ; sudo aptitude full-upgrade
Or if you install from the Mini.iso, then all should be up to date.

2) Install VLC Media player
sudo aptitude install vlc

3) Install NTP services becuase by default Ubuntu only updates the clock on boot-up. Leaving your machine on requires NTP services for continous updating.
sudo aptitude install ntp
edit /etc/ntp.conf to include
as the first server.

4) To use the command "srm" to shred/delete sensitive files, install Secure Delete
sudo aptitude install secure-delete

5) Install Gnome-Do. I recommend "docky" mode as it provides the "do" & a dock-bar.
sudo aptitude install gnome-do gnome-do-docklets

6) I use KeePass 2.10 Portable which requires Mono's winforms2 to run in linux. KeePass Portable is launchable via command line "Mono KeePass". Install winforms first
sudo aptitude install libmono-winforms2.0-cil libmono-system-runtime2.0-cil

7) Install SSH server for remote login and scp
sudo aptitude install openssh-server

8) I use for dynamic DNS services. Install ddclient and ssl socket.
sudo aptitude install ddclient libio-socket-ssl-perl
after configuring ddclient, edit /etc/ddclient.conf to include

9) I prefer x11vnc over ubuntu's default vine-server. For security I only run it from a remote SSH session. There are many options, but this suits my needs. First install x11vnc:
sudo aptitude install x11vnc ; x11vnc -storepasswd

Then from a remote SSH session I can
sudo x11vnc -once -usepw -display :0 -autoport 5900 -nap -noxdamage -nolookup -auth guess &
allowing me to use my vncviewer to connect remotely to the desktop.

10) Firefox plugins: AdBlock Plus, Ghostery, Privacy Plus, Update Notifier, GMail Manager, WOT, NoScript.

11) More than likely at some point you may need to re-install Ubuntu. Remastersys allows to to create your own distribution (with all updates) or a backup cd. You can run "remastersys" from the gui or the command line.
First add
deb karmic/
to synaptic repositories then
sudo aptitude install remastersys

12) Add "Open in Terminal" item to nautilus context menus.
sudo aptitude install nautilus-open-terminal

13) Add "Open as Administrator" item to nautilus context menus.
sudo aptitude install nautilus-gksu

14) Get a more current NVidia driver:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubuntu-x-swat/x-updates
sudo aptitude update
sudo aptitude install nvidia-current

15) Sometimes the colors just don't work, install this to edit them:
sudo apt-get install gnome-color-chooser

16) Install webmin for various configuring, including easier iptables firewall setup.  Refer to for installation.

Also take a look at Tips and Tricks for Ubuntu after Installation