October 1, 2008: RAM and Disk Costs of Vista

I hear a fair number of complaints about the ‘bloat’ in Vista, so I decided to do a little bit of pricing research. I conclude that in most cases, the extra RAM and disk needed to run Vista will be $50 or less. The assumptions I used were:

  1. You are upgrading a system with at least a 2gHz processor, and therefore do not need to upgrade the CPU or motherboard. (Vista is actually running well on my 1.7gHz processor, but I rounded up to 2gHz just for the heck of it.)
  2. You do not need Aero, and therefore do not need to upgrade your video card.
  3. You will replace your existing RAM with 2GB of new RAM.
  4. You will replace your hard drive, but only charge the first 40GB of the new drive to the Vista upgrade. This is a generous estimate: the C:\Windows directory my Vista Ultimate system, running for months now, is using a total of 15.1 GB (including all subdirectories).
  5. You’re not buying so-called “high-end” parts, like RAM with chrome heat spreaders and so on; you shop on specifications and best-deal prices.

All prices from http://www.pricewatch.com and are current as of the minute I write this article.

Desktop memory (DDR2, all ‘2GB kit’ prices):
41.00 - ddr2-1066 pc2-8500 2gb kit
61.98 - ddr2-1000 pc2-8000 2gb kit
26.73 - ddr2-800 pc2-6400 2gb kit
25.92 - ddr2-667 pc2-5300 2gb kit
25.69 - ddr2-533 pc2-4200 2gb kit
36.99 - ddr2-400 pc2-3200 2gb kit

Notebook memory (DDR2, single 2GB stick):
32.99 - so-dimm ddr2 pc2-6400 2gb
29.45 - so-dimm ddr2 pc2-5300 2gb
29.48 - so-dimm ddr2 pc2-4200 2gb
69.00 - so-dimm ddr2 pc2-3200 2gb

Disk (500GB, 3 flavors, plus a 250GB ATA drive): 
53.99 - sata 500gb 3.5” ($0.11/gig)
65.95 - ultra ata 500gb 3.5” ($0.13/gig)
160.16 - notebook 500gb SATA 2.5” ($0.32/gig)
99.99 - notebook 250gb ATA 2.5” ($0.40/gig) (I was unable to find a 500GB ATA drive; had to go to Newegg to find this 250GB drive)

So, the worst case here is a notebook system using ATA hard drive and PC2/3200 RAM. You’d spend $99.99 for a 250GB hard drive and $69 for the RAM upgrade, for a total of $170. But if we assume you really only needed 40 GB for the Vista install, that’s $16 in disk costs ($0.40/gig * 40 gigs). So the upgrade cost required by Vista is $85. All the other RAM/disk costs, using this same method (full cost of RAM + cost of first 40 gigs of disk) are $48.99 or lower.

For a desktop system using 3.5” internal drives, the worst case would be a SATA 500gb drive ($160.16) and PC2/800 RAM ($61.98). That’s a total cost of $222.14, but the 40GB needed for Vista costs $12.80. So the upgrade cost required by Vista is $74.78. All the other desktop RAM/disk costs are $53.80 or lower (again via the ‘full cost of RAM + first 40 gigs of disk’ method).

Conclusion: in most cases, the costs of extra disk and RAM for Vista will be less than $50, if you are buying new parts and shopping smart.

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Moving to a new PC

Ed Bott lays out a simple process for getting it done right.

Networking cheatsheets

Some very nice reference sheets for OSPF, BGP, subnetting, ports, etc.

September 19, 2008: Extreme Disk Failure!

All that metalic dust *used* to be the disk and heads!

I found this and many other pictures of the same failed hard drive in the Ars Technica forums, and I just had to share it with the 3 loyal readers of this blog.

Notice how the inner part of the platter (near the hub) has actually worn completely through - the platter is no longer attached to the hub! Wow. Go have a look at the rest of the pictures, which are horridly fascinating.

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September 19, 2008: Short power cords for shipshape racks.

Hooded power cordIf Power cord, standardyou’ve racked any servers lately, you’re probably irked at the coils of power cord slack you ended up with. There’s no good place to put them! CablesToGo have an answer: short power cords. They have them in 1’, 2’, 3’ and, well, a bunch more sizes. They’ll cost $5 and up, but are worth it.

Go ahead, submit the purchase order. Worst thing that can happen is, boss says no!

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September 10, 2008: CentOS Network Install Mirrors

So today I needed to do a fresh install of CentOS 5.2. Went to the trouble of torrenting the DVD, then discovering my DVD burner has the (terminal?) flu.

Plan B: a network install. Tony Bhimani has documented this pretty well, with one problem: in screen 8, he recommends using http://mirrors.kernel.org as the netinstall source. But today it is down. So a bit more googling brings me to a few other sites recommending their favorite mirror … in places like Belgium. But I’m in the US, and the thought of all those packets flying halfway around the world does not thrill me. Where, oh where, is the list of mirrors I can install from? It doesn’t seem easy to find by searching the CentOS site, nor via Google … so I figure I’ll document it here. Maybe the next person googling it will find this just a tad quicker?

The CentOS Public Network Install mirror list is here: http://www.centos.org/modules/tinycontent/index.php?id=13

and some interesting status views are here: http://mirror-status.centos.org/

I’m glad I found the list; I first tried installing from U Idaho, but that failed because of a bad or missing Gnome image. My next try, from U Oregon, worked out well.

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The Great Zero-Fill Challenge

Do you need tools like DBAN? These guys say no.

September 3, 2008: Windows Performance Tools

Bootvis Remember Bootvis? That’s it, on the right. Microsoft made it to help OEMs setup XP systems that would boot faster. But more than a few techies got hold of it and used it for similar purposes. It provided a very handy view of which processes took the most time during the boot process, allowing a savvy user to tweak things. MS stopped providing Bootvis on their public website, saying that it was of no use to the average end user

I had thought there was no Vista/W2008 equivalent to Bootvis, but it turns out I was wrong. Microsoft makes the Windows Performance Tools (WPT) available for download. WPT includes the On/Off Transition Performance Analyzer so you can track performance data during startup, shutdown, standby/resume, or hibernate/resume. I haven’t had a chance to play with the On/Off perf tool yet, but WPT itself is nice.

Unlike Perfmon, WPT is not live performance information. First you run the xperf tool for awhile, capturing data. When you have completed your data capture, you run the graphical analysis tool.

Windows Performance Tools

Above, WPT is showing CPU usage by process, disk reads and writes by priority, and finally disk utilization by process. The first pane is not new - perfmon provides this data. The middle pane is an interesting breakdown of disk reads and writes by priority. And the third pane is really interesting: disk utilization graphed per process and by priority (Perfmon will do overall system I/O per process, but that includes file, network, and other device I/O). The presentation is nice - you can hover the cursor over any line to see which process was using that much of the resource at any one time.

Now here’s a fun bit:

WPT - process lifetimes and hard faults

The process lifetimes in the top pane are something you won’t get in Perfmon, and they are quite handy because they sync to the other graphs. The bottom pane here is showing hard faults (agan, available via Perfmon). But the nice bit here is, you can show any two panes next to one another, so you can see the effect of starting a process on, say, CPU or disk utilization. You can also overlay any one pane on top of another. That’s handy.

WPT has a few other tricks up its sleeve, which I’ll let you discover for yourself. Honestly, there’s not a lot of new data here; it’s mainly a different view of the Perfmon counters we already know and love. The ability to track this data during a startup/shutdown is a new and appreciated capability though. And I am excited to finally be able to see disk utilization on a per-process basis.

I have some ideas on performance visualization that I hope to write about in the coming days. Meanwhile, I thank Michael Fortin, who mentioned WPT in a fascinating post on the Engineering Windows 7 blog. I’m really impressed with the quality of information Steve Sinofsky (who heads up the Windows 7 project) is personally exposing in this blog, and I hope to see more of it!

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September 2, 2008: Kill-a-watt

NewEgg is currently selling this handy little device for 18 bucks, plus $7 in shipping. And it’s a great price, but wait, there’s more! Now you can get it for the low, low price of $14 (plus shipping), if you use the promo code EMCAKACAF at the checkout stand. For $21 you can have your very own Kill-a-Watt.

I use my K-A-W when I am setting up a new server. I plug the server into the K-A-W and write down the starting amperage (computers draw the most current at startup, when they power fans at full speed, spin up drives, etc). Then I wait till I hear the fans drop down to their normal, lower speed operation, and measure again - this will be typical of the system’s normal draw. I keep all that data in a spreadsheet, usually sorted by which breaker and/or PDU each server is plugged into. It then becomes easy to see when I am nearing an overload condition.

A problem I have seen in several server rooms is, things work fine until a power outage occurs. Once power is restored, it can be difficult to power the room up again, as all those high starting loads trip the breakers. Similarly, servers draw more power the hotter they get, so if you have any HVAC problems, you can start seeing breakers trip out.

With a $21 outlay and a few more minutes during your server commissioning procedure, you can completely avoid these kinds of issues. There are many other fun and useful things you can do with the K-A-W, like precalculating the power cost per year of a server, or figuring out how overloaded your UPS is. The K-A-W has a readout mode which shows that pesky ‘VA’ number that UPS makers are so enamored of.

It’s a convenient little truth-teller. 

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Microsoft DHCP Team Blog

 They’re looking for feature suggestions.

August 28, 2008: IE8 beta 2

Short and sweet: I have found no showstoppers, and several things to really like, in IE8 beta2 (running on my Vista system). If your web browser isn’t mission critical, go ahead and give IE8b2 a try. It won’t bite.

IE8b1 did bite. It rendered many pages terribly; required a close-and-reopen cycle to switch to compatibility mode, and didn’t understand anchor tags. It stayed on my system less than an hour before I reverted back to IE7. Which is a nice thing to know, by the way: if you have problems with the beta, simply uninstall it (the normal way: Control Panel, Programs and Features), and your system reverts back to the IE7 you had before.

IE8 by default renders every new page in standards mode. That makes web devs happy since they no longer have to apply IE-specific hacks to make their pages look nice, but sometimes can throw you for a loop, because pages with IE-specific hacks can actually look bad in standards mode. It’s not a problem though; just click the compatibility button and IE8 will re-render the page in what I’m calling “IE hacks mode”. It will also remember that setting for the next time you visit that page. Nice.

The biggest improvement in IE8 is speed. I have not done objective measurements but to me, pages seem to load a lot faster in IE8, and that is indeed a welcome improvement. Other improvements:

  • CTRL-F (Find) now does not create a dialog box that blocks your view of the page. Instead it opens a toolbar at the top of the page.
  • Tabs are now isolated from one another. One hanging web page doesn’t kill all your other sessions.
  • When you close IE8, there is no more 'remember tabs for next session' option. Instead, next time you open IE8, you have the option to 'reopen last browsing session.'
  • IE8 closes a lot faster than IE7 did. IE7 used to sort of sit on the second-to-last tab it was closing for a long time (a minute or more) on my system. IE8 closes in about 2 seconds.
  • Tabs are colorcoded and grouped. So all tabs which were opened from one page, share the same color as that page. Handy.
  • The address bar, once you start typing in it, is a lot smarter. I did note that sometimes I could not tab to the top choice in it, though! Had to actually point ‘n’ click with the mouse. Hope they fix that.

These are just the features which stood out for me as I played with it today. They seem like little things - but for me, they’ve already made web browsing much more pleasant. There are more new things; Ed Bott talks about them, and so does the IE8 team. The release notes (for Vista) are here. This version is said to be feature complete: from here to release, the IE8 team will be working on bug and performance fixes as well as documentation writing.

IE8 is definitely going to save me some time and frustration throughout the working day. It’s a keeper!

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August 21, 2008: Vista and multiple displays: annoyance

This is bugging me. Recently I added a spiffy new monitor to my desk. My primary work system is a ThinkPad T42, which lives in a docking station when it’s here on the desk. I position the laptop so that its screen is beneath the new screen, so I need Vista to understand the relative layout of the two screens.

I can do that:

What I need Vista to do

… but what I find is that every time the screensaver is invoked, when I log back in to the system, I see the screens like this for about 2 seconds. Then the screen flashes black, and my layout returns to:

Vista returns to this at every login event.

This also happens after every sleep, hibernate, user switch, or reboot event. Essentially, every time I must login to the system with username and password, Vista goes out of its way to return to this setting. So I must manually switch it back to the preferred layout. I have discovered that this issue does not plague the builtin Administrator user. But it does afflict all other users, includng members of the Administrators group.

Thanks to Michael at the Vista Forums, I found a suboptimal solution. In the Start Menu, type Scheduled Tasks, wait for it to appear, then right-click it and choose Run as Administrator. The new (and much more complex!) Task Scheduler interface appears.

The semi-solution

So now I don’t have to reset monitor settings after every login, but I still do have to reset them each time I re-dock the system, otherwise my second monitor stays blank. It’s progress … but it’s not exactly a full solution.

If you know a better solution, speak up!

Side note. Hey, Microsoft - you need to put more work into the new Task Scheduler. It’s too busy. Also you folks need to rethink some of those default tasks you’ve put in there. The ones with GUIDs for names? Come on, guys; you know better. And the ones with “Custom Handler” for an action? Err … right. What does that do, and how do I find out?

OK, now what?

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August 19, 2008: About the users

If you’re anywhere in IT, I think you’ll profit by reading Joel Spolsky’s 9-chapter User Interface Design for Programmers. It’s available free on the web - in fact that link opens the whole thing as one big web page. If you’re not a slow reader, you should be able to get through the whole thing in under two hours.We serve them. You’ll learn some surprising things about how users think. Some are funny at first; but like many of the funniest things, they are also inescapably true. And sometimes, the joke’s on you, Mr. IT Guru!

But why would you want to spend two hours on this if you’re not a programmer doing something related to user interface design, you ask? The answer is, no matter where you are in IT, you serve the users, and you should learn how they think. We’ve all heard the dumb user jokes; we’ve all seen our colleagues grimace at the mere mention of that one especially thick user in Accounting. Most of us have given or at least heard the rant about the idiot users, and how the systems would be so much easier to manage if we could somehow remove the users.

I’ve done it too. But I stand here with a smile on my face and I really mean it when I say: we’re wrong when we think this way. Just flat-out wrong. We need to make serious efforts to change our thinking about this. The occasional comic rant may be ok, but by and large, we need to get it through our IT-biased heads that users have better things to do than become computer experts like us.

Okay, so that’s a bit of a hard line. Joel’s mini-book isn’t as in-your-face about this as I am; it is an easy, funny, and quick read, and it is well worth your time, since you serve the users. Even if you never see or talk to them, you serve them - and learning a bit about what this stuff looks like from their POV will make you better at your job.

Can’t be bothered to read the whole thing? Then I recommend the mere 10 minutes you’ll spend on Chapter 6: Designing for People Who Have Better Things To Do With Their Lives.

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