Linux: An Interesting VPN/Remote Project (1)

This is the first article of at least two articles about this project. The next article will follow once we are further into this project. A possible third article may follow at the end of this project.

The first day of September 2010 I received a web-form e-mail from a long-time client who lives and works in Alaska. My client's name is Wayne, so that is how I will refer to him for the rest of this article. Wayne bought one of the first AMD dual-CPU systems with eComStation my company built back in 2001. That system has been running ever since and is now ready to be retired. Wayne is going to be getting a new PC from my company, but first he has a project for which he asked me to provide assistance.

Wayne and his sister have pooled their resources and bought a vacation property in New Mexico. They are having a vacation home built there that will be shared between them. The home will be finished this month, October 2010. Wayne is an avid stargazer and has contracted for a small observatory to be built on the property about 200 feet from the home. This observatory will have a computer controlled, motorized retractable dome and computer controlled telescope. Unfortunately the software to control the dome and the telescope is apparently only developed for Microsoft systems [1] (Can you say vendor lock-in? I knew you could! Does anyone have hints on doing this with FOSS on Linux?). Wayne is also looking at Axis PTZ outdoor video surveillance cameras for the property.

How does this involve Linux, VPN and remote access?

Wayne wants to be able to do the following:

  • Have remote access from Alaska to New Mexico for running the telescope system over the internet.
  • Have remote access to video surveillance at the observatory and vacation house during the months that no one will be occupying the vacation home.
  • Be able to remotely power cycle all devices on the remote LAN.
  • Have a support person who can access these systems remotely to set it all up once connected.
  • Do all this on a budget that he can afford.

This is where I come in and Linux enters the picture. Wayne has already ordered one of our Tiny PC (Mini-ITX) systems that will be his router and VPN host for the vacation home. This Tiny PC will be running CentOS Linux with OpenVPN and sshd accessible over the internet. Wayne will be ordering a second Tiny PC for his Alaska home to set up a persistent VPN between the locations over the internet.

The New Mexico home and the observatory will be connected with 8-port or 16-port ethernet switches that connect with fiber-optic cable. There will be a single Category 6 cable run between the buildings as well. The fiber-optic cable will handle the data stream between the obeservatory and the home. The Category 6 cable will be used as a jumper between a base power management switch at the house and a client power management switch at the observatory.

The power management switches can be controlled over the phone using touch-tones to cycle power on individual devices connected to one of the 8 power ports on each device. The Category 6 cable that will connect these will extend the ability to cycle power in the observatory with the client power management switch. Wayne has already ordered these power switches and a UPS for the base unit from my company as well.

While this project is not cheap, it is going to be done within a budget that Wayne can afford. Part of the reason for that is CentOS Linux, the powerful, enterprise class software used to host his VPN and ssh remote access, is free of charge. So far, this is all vaporware in the design and configuration phase. Sometime in the next few weeks this will be put together and be a working system. Check back later for the next chapter, Linux: An Interesting VPN/Remote Project (2).

[1] The software mentioned here is TheSky/X Professional. It is actually for Microsoft and Apple systems. There will supposedly be a Linux version available … sometime. Of course the software is not free as in libre, nor free as in cost. Neither is it inexpensive in the opinion of the author. (Go back.)

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Linux: We Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

This press release is to announce that for the month of July 2010 ERA Computers & Consulting (ERACC) is following the idiomatic phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is!” when it comes to our Linux PC sales. What do we mean? Read on.

For every PC purchased from us in July 2010 with any Linux distribution preinstalled ERACC will donate 5% of the sale to the Free Open Source Software (FOSS) project of your choice. As with most such offers there are caveats. These are:

  • The PC must be ordered and paid for within the month of July 2010.
  • The PC must be configured with at least the minimal configuration to have a working PC (case, power supply, motherboard, cpu, ram, hard drive, video adapter and operating system). You can choose to use your existing monitor and input devices.
  • The PC must be preloaded by ERACC with a Linux distribution.
  • Multi-boot systems configured with Linux and one or more additional operating systems do qualify.
  • The 5% does include all hardware, labor and additional software purchased on a single order.
  • The 5% does not include shipping fees and taxes on a sale.
  • The PC must be kept past the date it can be returned for a refund.
  • We only ship our systems to locations in the USA, Canada and Mexico.

That is it. Figure it up, purchase of a $500(US) PC will generate $25 for your favorite FOSS project. So, if you are in the market for a new PC with Linux preloaded then July 2010 is a good month to get that PC from ERACC and help out an open source project of your choice. You can get started by filling out the form for a quote on our shopping site. Then when you check out, be sure to indicate in the comments area the FOSS project you want to sponsor.

For full disclosure about orders from ERACC please read our Quote Addendum: ERACC Quote Addendum (PDF)

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Edit Fri Aug 27 17:58:12 UTC 2010: Fix the URL to the quote form to point to our new form.

Linux: We Now Build Mini ITX Systems with Linux Installed

We are proud to announce that here at ERA Computers & Consulting (ERACC) we have researched the parts needed to build Mini ITX, Tiny PC, systems and are offering a quote option on our sales site. Each of these Tiny PC systems is built to end-user specification. We build these with or without a hard drive and with or without an operating system. The only operating systems we will install on these are all Linux. If you want something other than Linux then we will build the Tiny PC with an empty hard drive for self-install.

What are typical uses for such a system?

  • Point of Sale Station
  • Diskless Workstation (Network Bootup)
  • Controller for Manufacturing System
  • Dedicated System for Statistics Gathering
  • Extremely Small Footprint Desktop PC
  • Extremely Small Footprint Server
  • Use Your Imagination …

A quote costs you nothing, so please look over the options on the sales page and let us quote you a Tiny PC from ERACC.

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Edit Fri Aug 27 17:58:12 UTC 2010: Fix the URL to the quote form to point to our new form.

Linux: Updating a Linux Unfriendly Motherboard BIOS

You have a relatively new PC with your favorite Linux distribution installed. You are content and all is well with the world. Then you discover that your motherboard needs an update to the BIOS to allow some new hardware to work properly with your PC. Alas! Your almost new PC, which has an on-board floppy controller, was shipped with NO FLOPPY DRIVE. The BIOS update procedure, of course, requires a bootable floppy with (Egad!) Windows 98 DOS or higher. What the heck do you do?

I recently ran into just this problem with a ~2 year old Mandriva Linux based PC that my company built for a client. Of course, I have floppy drives I could use temporarily in this PC to update the, unfriendly to Linux, BIOS. But as I was pondering the situation I wondered what would I do if I did not have a floppy drive to use? Then I realized almost every PC made in the last 10 years or so has at least a CD drive from which one may boot a “Live” OS. This PC is no exception as it has a DVD?RW drive installed, actually two of them. One can create a bootable CD with a Windows 98 floppy image and load a BIOS update from a virtual disk created from that same boot.

While I do have a “legal” copy of Windows 98 I do not have that copy of Windows 98 installed anywhere at the moment. Also, my Linux work PC does not even have a floppy controller in it. So, I began to look around the internet for a bootable Windows 98 image and found one at the Boot Disks web site. Then I needed to get the BIOS update utility and the BIOS update image onto that ISO before burning a CD with the Windows 98 ISO image. A little bit of research with my current favorite search engine turned up ISO Master. I checked my Mandriva 2010 packages and there it was, waiting for me to install it:

Mandriva urpmq -i isomaster Results
Mandriva 'urpmq -i isomaster' Results

I installed ISO Master and opened the Windows 98 ISO file with it. I then used the ISO Master file browser to find the BIOS update software I had previously extracted from its “zip” file and dragged those to the file list in the ISO. Using the Save As option from the ISO Master File menu I created a new ISO file with the new files included:

ISO Master - New ISO Image
ISO Master - New ISO Image

I then created a bootable CD-RW disk from this new ISO using k3b from my fluxbox menus. I used CD-RW so I could update the disk image later as needed and then reuse the CD. I then booted the system needing a BIOS update using the Windows 98 bootable CD-RW disc. The Windows 98 DOS complained about the partitions on the hard drive, but I just ignored that as I already knew it would not “like” the ext3 partitions. The ISO image I chose at Boot Disks creates a RAM disk with the contents from the image in that disk. I switched to that RAM disk, started the BIOS update program with the switches needed to update the BIOS and watched as the update completed successfully.

I then removed the boot CD and rebooted the PC. The motherboard complained of a BIOS checksum error, which was also expected, and asked me to press “F1” to continue and load the BIOS setup screens. The BIOS settings were back to factory default so I changed the ones that needed changing, mainly the boot order. Then I saved the BIOS settings and rebooted again. No errors this time and the Mandriva 2010 Linux installation booted without a hitch. I checked to see if Mandriva 2010 now saw the new hardware. Yup, there it was.

So, if you find yourself in the same predicament maybe this article will help you get your BIOS update done. A comment to let us know this helped you would be appreciated!

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Edit Mon Apr 5 11:21:50 CDT 2010: Remove URL to Boot Disks site per Frank’s comment.

Virtual Control – Linux, VirtualBox and OS/2 or eComStation

This is part one of a two part article about a “real life” control system that is a candidate for moving to a VM on Linux. This control system is being used right now in a real manufacturing facility.

Last year in February I wrote the article “Windows 98? Linux and VirtualBox! (Maybe)“. It is about using VirtualBox to perhaps keep an old Windows 98 system running in a virtual machine (VM). In that article I touched on the concept of a business that runs a system controller on old hardware that may be saved by moving the system to a VM. This article is a follow-up on that concept to cover a recent test we did at ERACC for moving a control system from “real” hardware to a VM. I have not asked permission to name names so I will just call the company that contacted me “client” and use first names only for the people involved.

Several weeks ago I was contacted by Stan at the client about an IBM OS/2 Warp 3 system that runs a critical control system in their manufacturing facility. The hardware for this system is around 15 years old and they recently had problems with the SCSI hard drive. The concern is that this old hardware is eventually going to fail completely as all things man-made eventually do. They could purchase a new control system, but that would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps $40,000/US or more for the controller and cost of the installation from the control system manufacturer. In this current poor economy businesses are looking for ways to save money so a solution with a $40K or more price tag is going to be very carefully researched before such an expenditure will be made. This case is no exception. In the course of the client’s research my company was discovered as we still support OS/2 in its current incarnation as eComStation.

So Stan contacted me. He wanted to know if we could build them a new PC to run the current control system software. I assured Stan we could do that, but I suggested that we try running the software inside an eComStation VM using VirtualBox on a Linux system first. My reasoning is if it works this “future proofs” the current control software and keeps them from having to purchase a new system any time soon. I planned to help get the VM up and running at their facility and all of this could be done for well under $2500/US. I mentioned that I would need a disk image of his current control system and would work from that to create a VM with which to test. Stan agreed this sounded like a good idea and said he would get the disk image done and get back to me.

A few weeks passed. Then I received a call from Stan saying the disk image was ready on a USB thumb drive. I gave Stan our shipping address and he placed the thumb drive in the mail to us. When the thumb drive arrived I brought it to my work PC and copied the “disk.img” image file. This PC runs Mandriva 2010 Linux on an AMD Phenom quad-core based motherboard which includes AMD’s hardware virtualization. One needs hardware virtualization to run OS/2 or eComStation in a VirtualBox VM. The disk image was converted to a VirtualBox virtual disk image (VDI) using the command:

VBoxManage convertdd ./disk.img /data1/virtual_machines/virtualbox/vdi/disk.vdi

This VDI was then used to create a VM to try to boot it. Unfortunately it would not boot. So a new VM and VDI was created using eComStation 2.0 release candidate 7 (eCS2rc7). This new VM was booted and the VDI created above was mounted as a second “disk” in the VM. The data and programs were copied from the mounted second VDI to the new VDI and testing began. After editing the eCS2rc7 startup files, CONFIG.SYS and STARTUP.CMD, to include the relevant software for the control system the VM was rebooted. The first reboot failed as some of the old OS/2 Warp 3 based drivers failed to load. It was determined by trial and error what new drivers were needed to replace the old ones and which of the old drivers are irrelevant when using a VM. Finally we had a booting VM that started the control software.

We discovered that the control software uses TCP/IP to “talk to” the manufacturing hardware. This is important because a custom hardware interface would likely not work in this case. Any control software that communicates using TCP/IP or serial connections is likely to work just fine though. We had what we needed to know to proceed with this project. I contacted Stan and sent him the data, with screen shots, in an e-mail. Stan forwarded the information to MIS at the client. As of now we are waiting for MIS at the client to give the go ahead to continue. I am confident that this will get a “green light”, so I am “jumping the gun” a bit with this article.

I will write part two once the project has proceeded to its conclusion, good or bad. Although, “good” is the only outcome I think is likely.

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Edit Sat Mar 20 12:25:38 CDT 2010: Fix typo as pointed out by John Angelico, Thanks for the “heads up”.

GNU/Linux: Replacing a Dead Router with a Linux System

Earlier today I decided to upgrade the firmware on my SOHO’s Linksys WRT54G v5 router. I usually do such things on the weekends in case something breaks. It is a good thing I waited until the weekend this time. My Linksys WRT45G is now “bricked”. For some unknown reason the firmware update never finished although I waited for over an hour for it to complete. Of course no internet access was happening during this time and I could not get to any web sites to try to discover what I could do to fix the router.

Enter an old Dell Dimension XPS R400 PC that has been gathering dust in the closet. It has an 80GB Western Digital IDE drive, a Startech 10/100 NIC and 192MB of RAM in it. I received this old PC from a client that bought a new, custom built system from my company in October 2007. He no longer needed the Dell and was just going to trash it. Instead I convinced him to let me wipe the drive, install Mandriva 2008 on it and try to sell it on eBay. It did not sell when I listed it. The client did not want it back, so I just stuck it in the IT junk closet with several other old systems and flaky monitors. I decided to make this old Dell PC into my “new” router. Since it already has Mandriva 2008 on it I figured I could use that to get routing going and then upgrade the Mandriva later.

I also have an even older custom built PC that has been running a very old Mandriva for years as a file share and a Hylafax send / receive server. It has been giving drive errors so I knew it was going to need to be repaired soon. Once I decided to use the Dell I figured I would scavenge this old PC for its 3Com 10/100 NIC and its hard drive so I could easily copy the Hylafax settings to the “new” router PC. I began shutting things down and taking apart PC systems. After a bit of dust cleaning, parts rearranging and cable connecting I had the Dell ready to boot up with the 3Com NIC installed as a second NIC and the hard drive from the old Hylafax server in place. A small 5-port Linksys switch is taking the place of the built-in switch on the Linksys WRT54G.

I booted up the Dell and tried to login as root at a CLI “login:” prompt. However, I had forgotten the password. Luckily it has LILO boot loader on it and I know I can reboot with “linux single” on the boot line to get to a root prompt and reset the password for root. This was done and a few minutes later I was in the command line version of Mandriva Control Center (MCC) setting up the network. Then I go to set up “Internet connection sharing” and it keeps failing with an error stating it cannot find a network adapter when I choose the NIC that is connected to the internet in preparation for choosing the NIC that is connected to the LAN.

After scratching my head and thinking about this a bit I have an epiphany. The second NIC is on the internet and is probably configured in the firewall settings as the local network. Sure enough when I check the settings in /etc/shorewall/interfaces (Shorewall is a set of scripts included in Mandriva to manage the Linux iptables firewall for one.) the second NIC, eth1, is set as loc. Meaning it is set to be the local interface for the LAN instead of the WAN interface, called net, for the internet. Changing these around is a matter of a few seconds in ‘vim’. I then restart Shorewall with ‘service shorewall restart’ to reconfigure the iptables settings in memory. Then I can finish configuring “Internet connection sharing”. Once that is done I test sharing from my SOHO desktop PC and find I am back online. Total time from completely down to back online with a Linux system based router – about 3 hours.

Now that I am back online with a “new” Linux / iptables based router my next task will be to set up my port forwards and maybe some QoS (Quality of Service) settings for the company VoIP phone. I know how to do the port forwards but I have no clue how to set up QoS for a service. Time to do some web searching for that QoS stuff.

Edit Sat Jan 23 18:47:20 CST 2010: Fix some typographical errors.

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Order a High Powered Linux Workstation on the Cheap

I just finished reading Paul Ferrill’s article at Linux Planet titled Build a High Powered Linux Workstation on the Cheap. As I am a system builder this article obviously piqued my interest. Paul goes into the specifications of his high powered workstation somewhat. So, I decided to see what I as a system builder could do to come close to matching his Do It Yourself (DIY) price.

Here is the list of components Paul mentions:

AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU 3.4GHz (quad-core)
MSI DKA790GX motherboard
PNY Optima DDR2 memory (4GB x 2)
Thermaltake Element G case
1 TB SATA drive (No specific model mentioned)

He comes up with a total of $665.00 for the DIY builder that wants to build his own PC. Notice Paul does not include a power supply, which is sort of necessary to make this system work. Paul also does not include shipping fees to get the parts shipped to one’s door. One would need to add a power supply that is quad-core capable to this mix which puts the total over $700.00 when the power supply is added. Granted, one can find parts from online stores that will ship via UPS Ground or FedEx Ground for “free”. So, shipping fees may not enter into the picture for the careful DIY shopper.

This is truly nice for the DIY person that likes to tinker with her own hardware. However, for the majority of PC users building one’s own PC is out of the question. The average PC user wants to buy it off the shelf or order it off the web preloaded with an operating system and probably some software. For the average PC user these are the only choices she wants to have. Most people do not get “shivery” over putting together “sexy” hardware like we hardware geeks do. More than likely the average PC user will tend to go a bit “green around the gills” just thinking about trying to build his own PC. This is where the system builders, such as my own company (An AMD only shop), ZaReason, System 76 and Penguin Computing enter the picture.

Here is what I get when I fill out a parts list form here as if for a new customer ordering a PC from my company today. I am using as close to the same components that Paul used as I can get:

AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU 3.4GHz (quad-core)
MSI DKA790GX motherboard
OCZ 8GB PC2-8500 (DDR2-1066) DDR2 Memory (4GB Kit x 2)
Thermaltake Element T Case
Thermaltake TR2 Series 430W Power Supply
HITACHI Deskstar 1TB SATA II 7200 RPM 16MB Buffer Hard Drive
Preloaded “free” GNU/Linux Distribution (Any of the top 20 at DistroWatch, Mandriva recommended)

This system for the Non-DIY person would cost $793.00, plus shipping and perhaps sales tax if purchased through a system builder such as my own company. Adding a decent flat panel monitor and keyboard/mouse combo to get a complete system would add roughly another $175.00 to $200.00 to the total. I will figure the higher $200.00 for a nice monitor and keyboard/mouse giving a grand total of around $993.00 for a complete system using (roughly) Paul’s specifications. At this point I am not thinking this is all that cheap. What if we went with different components that are not quite so cutting edge? This could be done to bring the price down somewhat. In the interest of completeness I decided to do just that.

Here is my new parts form for a complete PC with GNU/Linux preloaded for the more budget conscious user:

AMD Phenom II X4 3GHz (quad-core)
ASUS AMD 780G AM3 motherboard
OCZ 4GB PC2-8500 (DDR2-1066) DDR2 Memory (4GB Kit x 1)
Thermaltake WingRS 201 Case
Thermaltake TR2 Series 430W Power Supply
SAMSUNG 500GB SATA 7200 RPM 16MB Buffer Hard Drive
LG 20in Widescreen LCD Monitor
Logitech Keyboard/Mouse Combo (PS/2)
Preloaded “free” GNU/Linux Distribution (Any of the top 20 at DistroWatch, Mandriva recommended)

This more budget conscious, high power PC system would price out at $775.00 (See correction in comments below.). This is real pricing that would be used today if someone ordered this PC from my company. One does not care to do business with my company due to my shameless self-promotion? Fine, here is a comparable system from System76 with quad-core Intel CPU and only Ubuntu available: Wild Dog Performance. That is not quite as budget conscious though. Or, go find a system builder near you at the Naked Computers web site and make a deal.

The bottom line is whether one is a DIY type or an average PC user one can get a complete, rather high powered GNU/Linux based PC system for around $800.00. If one does not need a new monitor the total is closer to $600.00. Can one do this for no more than $500.00? I tend to think that might be possible if one were willing to settle for a more mid-range system with a dual-core CPU. Such as the Limbo 2550A from ZaReason, Inc. However, hardware prices for these more powerful quad-core components continue to drop. Perhaps in another six to twelve months one could build or buy a less than cutting edge, high powered, quad-core workstation for around $500.00. Time will tell.

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Edit Sat Aug 22 15:47:18 CDT 2009: Change the incorrect “OCZ 4GB” to “OCZ 8GB” on the first build specs.

Edit Sat Aug 22 19:27:24 CDT 2009: Add link for price correction in comments. Change “under $800.00” to “around $800.00”.

Windows 98? Linux and VirtualBox! (Maybe)

Believe it or not, some people still use Windows 98. Microsoft abandoned Windows 98 to the wolves in 2006 and no longer fixes known bugs or known security flaws in Windows 98. Yet some folk still use Windows 98. There may be a business reason such as a critical hardware controller that is built on Windows 98 for a manufacturing system that cost millions of dollars. Upgrading such systems can be very expensive so businesses usually keep them around for a very long time before upgrading. Other reasons may be personal. For example the user who is happy with Windows 98 because it does what she wants, her five year old PC she upgraded to in 2004 and had Windows 98 installed on is still running and she sees no reason to upgrade again.

However, hardware moves on. Most, if not all, new hardware no longer has Windows 98 drivers. When the critical system or the personal system hardware begins to fail then the user with Windows 98 may find that the new hardware will not work with Windows 98 due to lack of drivers. In such cases upgrading the hardware and reinstalling Windows 98 will likely be problematic to impossible. The option then is to get Microsoft Vista on a new PC, a huge, painful and possibly costly leap from Windows 98 if one wants a PC that will run Vista well. Upgrading a Windows 98 based control system for manufacturing or other critical business system may be impossible or very costly to do if one’s only choice is Microsoft XP or Microsoft Vista and new hardware for the production line or whatnot. One valid option is to go with a Linux distribution and a virtual machine like Sun Microsystems’ VirtualBox.

VirtualBox, also known as “vbox”, is another open source software project by Sun Microsystems, Inc. like their openSolaris, OpenOffice and other Sun OSS projects. What VirtualBox provides in layman’s terms is an emulated computer in memory on your real computer. The emulated computer is called a virtual machine or VM. The operating system that runs VirtualBox is called the host while the operating system running inside a VM is called the guest. The hardware on the host can be “virtualized” for sharing with the guest. In many cases where business control systems are involved this means the serial port would be shared with the guest for controlling the systems needing one’s old Windows 98 controller. All input and output through a serial port can then go to the control software running on the guest Windows 98 in the VM.

I have installed a Windows 98 guest in VirtualBox on my SOHO personal / business computer to try it out for this article. My first impression, once I got all the parts in place, was that it runs quite slow. I installed the SeaMonkey integrated browser to get a modern web browser on the VM but it loads and runs so slowly I found it to be unbearable to use. I searched for information on running Windows 98 under VirtualBox to see if there are “tweaks” one can do to speed it up. On my own I increased the VM RAM from 128MB to 256MB and the VM video memory from 8MB to 16MB. This seemed to help a little, but not much.

One should definitely read this if considering running a Windows 98 guest in a VirtualBox VM: http://www.virtualbox.org/wiki/User_FAQ#Windows98guests The slowness may or may not matter for a control system that largely gets set then runs unattended. However, it would be impractical for a user wanting to use the Windows 98 VM interactively. Other than a much faster CPU than my 1.5GHz AMD processor there appears to be little one can do as a user to speed it up. The developers apparently know about the slowness with Windows 98 VMs under VirtualBox but are not motivated to work on the problem since Windows 98 is so outdated. Unless someone wanted to invest a lot of money to get VirtualBox code tweaked to run Windows 98 there is little likelihood this will be fixed.

See the video of my Windows 98 virtual machine here: linux_vbox_w98.ogv
(OGG Theora video, 62,262,193 bytes, about 13 minutes or so in length. Get a player that can show OGG Theora videos here http://www.videolan.org/vlc/.)

During a conversation in the VirtualBox #vbox channel on the Freenode IRC Network a channel operater going by the nickname “klaus-vb” had this to say when I asked about speeding up a Windows 98 VM with a multi-core CPU: “… Multi-core doesn’t help much. clock speed helps, and what potentially also helps a lot (didn’t try win9x in a long time) is enabling hardware virtualization. [One] will of course require a cpu capable of this, and a bios which allows [one] to enable it. Just a few facts: 1 VM = 1 process, and in that process one of the threads executes the guest code. there are other threads in a VM process, and they can benefit from extra cores, but the thread which executes the VM code doesn’t get much faster usually. From this it should be obvious why higher clock speed increases the speed of a VM, but not necessarily increasing the core count. the latter of course helps if you run a lot of VMs. The fact that hw virtualization speeds up things would need to be checked. it does speed up real mode code, but win9x is doing weird things, so better check.” Unfortunately I do not have a computer with hardware virtualization available to check this as klaus-vb recommended, so caveat emptor.

Other open source virtual machines one may consider are Bochs and QEMU. For closed source virtual machines one might consider VMware. One of these might be a better option for running Windows 98. I will try them in the future and see.

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Edit Thu Jun 25 08:10:28 CDT 2009: Add URL for VLC video player.

The Dangers of Loaning Your Laptop

I recently worked on a Microsoft Windows XP based laptop for a young female college undergraduate at the request of her parents. The system was reported to be running “slow” and not able to access DVD media. I picked up the laptop and brought it to my home office for examination while the family took their holiday vacation together.

Suspecting the typical Microsoft operating system slow-down with usage and time I began examining the system. Right off I noticed the anti-virus package was an older version. I also noticed that the virus signatures were not up to date, which even this older version should be getting automatically. Also, this older anti-virus version did not have web browser protection. Suspecting an infection had gotten through the not-up-to-date anti-virus I rebooted the laptop with a Linux CD and ran a scan of the drive using Linux based anti-virus software that one can use to check Windows based computers. There is no need for anti-virus for a desktop Linux PC itself that is configured with typical privilege separation where the user does not run everything as an administrator (root).

The scan did find a web based infection that one can get from viewing cracked web sites with an unprotected web browser. A bit of research showed that this infection had likely come from someone viewing cracked pornography sites and/or cracked “social networking” pages. I knew the people paying for this repair, the parents, would want to know how this happened so I took the extra step of checking the browser history. Sure enough someone had used this laptop to view FaceBook pages. But someone had also used this laptop to view pornography sites.

This posed a dilemma. This family is definitely not pro-pornography. The young lady that owns the laptop is an adult but her parents are footing her bills, including the cleanup of this laptop. I seriously doubted that the young female had been viewing the type of pornography I found. So, should I pull the young lady aside and tell her about how the infection likely happened? Should I just tell her parents? Should I say nothing about the pornography sites at all? After thinking this over I decided the best policy would to be to explain to them all at the same time what I discovered and give my suggestions about how to prevent it in the future.

I cleaned up the laptop then installed the latest release of “free” AVG. I also got the latest release of Firefox and installed NoScript on it. The DVD problem turned out to be a lack of DVD software so I installed the DVD software that was included with the laptop. The system needed and received a tweak to fix DVD DMA (Direct Memory Access) so DVD videos would play smoothly. After running a full system scan with the new AVG install the laptop was ready to deliver.

When the family returned from their vacation I delivered the laptop and explained what I had found and about using Firefox with NoScript. I asked the young lady if she ever allowed anyone else to use her laptop. I can imagine if you ever went to college or you have children you know the answer. Yes, she allowed “friends” to use her laptop. One of those “friends” had broken her trust and used the laptop to browse these pornography sites, something about which she was obviously upset and embarrassed. She had a good idea who it was but the damage had already been done. In any case, she would have to handle this embarrassing, to her, problem when she returned to college.

What is the moral of this story? I am not attempting to point out the evils and destructive nature of pornography, although that is part of the problem here. No, what I want people to get from this is loaning out one’s computer to “friends” can cause one real problems. Problems that can cost one money to get repaired and/or potentially cause legal problems. Especially college undergraduates should think twice before allowing “friends” to borrow one’s laptop. In the event that this laptop had shown access to child pornography and laws had been passed to require me to report that to law enforcement I, or any technician working on this laptop, would have had to report it or break the law.

The Bottom Line: College people be very cautious about loaning out your computers to “friends”. You cannot know what they will do with it while you are not watching.

Edit Tue Jan 13 17:27:50 UTC 2009: Fix a typographical error.

Edit Wed Jan 14 20:24:41 UTC 2009: Fix problem with free AVG URL.

Edit Thu Jan 15 19:17:21 UTC 2009: Clarify the DVD DMA sentence.

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Mandriva Linux and your Blackberry

Hi all. I know – long time, no article. Business has picked up around here so I have less time for web articles. However, I wanted to follow up on something and thought a web article would be a good result from my research.

I was recently asked if I knew about applications on Mandriva Linux to synchronize one’s Blackberry with PIM contacts and calendar. While I do not have a Blackberry myself I knew I had read about this somewhere. After a short time of searching I ran across the article Syncing your BlackBerry on Linux By Joe Barr on December 21, 2007. This was the article I remember reading. Joe’s article does not get distribution specific so I did a bit of checking with my Mandriva 2008.1 system and my wife’s Mandriva 2009.0 system. Here are the applications one might want to check out:

For Mandriva with Gnome based PIM under Evolution install multisync-gui “MultiSync is a program to synchronize calendars, addressbooks and other PIM data between programs on your computer and other computers, mobile devices, PDAs or cell phones. It relies on the OpenSync framework to do the actual synchronisation.”.

For Mandriva with KDE based PIM under Kontact install kdepim-kitchensync “kitchensync is a multiple backend sync program”.

For backing up data from one’s Blackberry install barry-gui “This package contains a graphical applications to backup and restore data from a BlackBerry device.”.

Also take a look at barry-opensync “Barry is a desktop toolset for managing your BlackBerry(tm) device. (BlackBerry is a registered trademark of Research in Motion Limited.) This package contains the opensync plugin to synchronize a BlackBerry with other devices and applications.”.

While this is not a step-by-step article it should point one in the direction one needs to begin getting one’s Blackberry synchronized with one’s desktop personal information manager. Please, if you try any of these out based on reading this article share your experience with others by coming back and commenting here.

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