Getting AT&T Fiber to Play Nicely

Morals:

  • Don’t run router/firewall devices in series
  • Don’t let the AT&T Fiber installer fob you off with an Arris 5268ac or equivalent
  • Do insist on getting a BGW-210. AT&T has them, but they’re more newer and more expensive and, for whatever reason, the installers tend net to offer them.
  • If you can’t get a BGW-210 from AT&T, buy your own online. They’re pretty simple to install and configure. Plus, they’re much, much more configurable than the other Arris stuff — they even have extensive help documentation built in! — and are also much, much faster.

Some months ago I switched from Comcast’s cable-based data system to AT&T fiber. At least where I live (San Carlos, CA) it was a bit cheaper and much faster. It was wonderful getting downstream — and upstream! — data rates that were consistently above 900 megabit.

Only there was one problem. Those speeds tended not to last long, degrading, without warning to somewhere around 50 megabit. Which is below what I had been getting with Comcast.

For a while I could work around the problem by rebooting the AT&T-supplied modem/router. But the intervals at which I’d have to do that kept getting shorter and shorter and, besides, it wasn’t solving the problem, it was merely resetting things until the problem appeared again.

Actually, AT&T provides two different devices when you buy the fiber package: something that probably is the actual modem, in that it converts between the optical fiber and gigabit ethernet, and a device that I suspect is a fairly typical firewall/router with the capability of handling the output from the actual modem and splitting off VOIP for your phones. It was the router/firewall/whatever I kept rebooting, not the modem itself (which doesn’t appear to even have a reboot button).

It finally dawned on me that my problem might have been due to the fact that the AT&T router fed into a Cisco RV-325 router/firewall/VPN server. The Cisco device played an important rule during my Comcast era because the Comcast modem really was more of a modem, and didn’t contain a firewall. Putting two router/firewall devices in series like that is silly, and prone to causing problems. Even when I put the AT&T router/firewall/whatever device into something akin to “pass thru” mode (i.e., a mode which supposedly makes it act more like just a modem).

I didn’t want to abandon the Cisco device because I had finally figured out how to get its VPN capability to work with my iOS devices. That was both cool and useful, as it enabled me to fire up and remotely run my home computers when we were traveling. The AT&T hardware, an Arris 5268ac, doesn’t offer many configuration options — it appears to be intended to be used by customers with simple needs — and is pretty slow to boot.

I struggled to get the 5268ac working but finally gave up on the advice of some helpful fellow users on the AT&T Fiber Equipment forum.

I tried to get help from AT&T tech support, but it was generally pretty useless. Most of the techs denied there was any way to set up the VPN I wanted, and the one tech who said he thought it was possible arranged for me to get a BGW-210 replacement for the 5268ac…but the AT&T fulfillment department sent me a different Arris device instead and it was no better than the 5268ac.

So I bought my own BGW-210 from Amazon and installed it. The only two parts I was nervous about turned out not to be problems at all: connecting it to the modem was as simple as plugging in the special ONT cable that came out of the modem to the BGW-210, and interfacing my home phones to the VOIP outlet, even though it was designed as a “two line” outlet — the 5268ac has dual “single line” outlets — was just a matter of plugging in my “single line” plug into the “two line” outlet.

One minor PITA that may bite some people: none of the AT&T equipment I used allowed you to set up LANs in the 10.x.x.x space (there’s a reason for the limitation, which I’m not currently remembering, but you can research it online). That forced me to reconfigure my LAN into 192.168.1.x, causing some degree of hair-pulling, but it all worked out in the end.

BTW, if you are setting up a LAN that you want to VPN into, you should think about using something other than 192.168.0.x or 192.168.1.x. Those are very commonly used, and apparently problems can occur if you VPN out of a 192.168.0.x network into a 192.168.0.x network. That’s not a risk I face, but I thought I’d pass it along.

As for my adventures setting up a VPN…that’s another story.

6 Trillion Bytes in the Palm of Your Hand… Almost

I had reason to dispose of a couple of hard drives, but I didn’t want to throw them out with the data they contained. Unfortunately, they had died in such a way that my PC couldn’t recognize them on boot. Which meant I couldn’t use disk wiping software on them. I thought I was going to have to either take the risk of leaving the data on them, or pay a service to dispose of them catastrophically.

But then I had an idea.

Since I didn’t care what condition they ended up in, why not just disassemble them? And wreak havoc on the platters they contain?

So, behold, six trillion bytes of data neatly arranged on my dining room table:

By the way, taking them apart was quick and easy, provided you have the right tools (Torx, I think; the tips look like a Star of David). Only you have to find and undo the One Hidden Screw. Which I didn’t, on my first attempt…but I quickly realized it was there when I bent the metal cover:

Here’s where the One Hidden Screw is, at least on Seagate drives:

Seagate drives are a great investment if you like to disassemble hard disks. They fail relatively quickly, and in my experience generally fairly catastrophically.

After pulling the platters out I ran a magnet over both sides, and then, just because, I heated them up with a blowtorch. Not sure if I managed to reach the material’s Curie temperature, but at least I got to use a blowtorch for the first time in years.

Buddy Can You Spare a Few Bytes?

Another day in the Maelstrom of Badly Designed Software, this time involving not just an operating system function but also boot firmware. Geez, if you can’t trust your boot firmware, what can you trust?

This all began when the server which runs our DVR software (Sage; a great open source product — check it out at the community forum) began acting rather oddly. Truth to tell, this had been going on for months, but since we’ve switched about 90% of our TV watching to streaming services it was low on the priority list of things to fix. But since I had the great idea of saving my back and knees by relocating the server out of the hall closet to a little nook upstairs, I thought I might as well figure out what was wrong.

That ended up being a huge time sink and hair-puller. As my dad always said, it’s the five minute jobs that take two hours. Unfortunately, with computers the ratio is often 100 or more to 1, not 24.

I thought the problem was that one of the hard drives comprising a Windows Storage Space array was failing. No problem; I’d had to replace a failing drive once before (I’m looking at you, Seagate — can you please up your quality control??) and while it’s time consuming, it’s pretty straightforward.

The basic concept behind Storage Spaces is that you assign a bunch of individual drives to a pool and Windows virtualizes them into One Big Honking Drive. With built-in redundancy and error-checking. Expandable at will. Replaceable at will. Or so I thought.

Turns out things don’t go so well when (a) more than one drive fails at the same time (really, thanx again, Seagate!!) and (b) you’ve used up all the SATA ports on your motherboard. Kinda hard to “just add another drive” when there’s nothing to hook it to, and if you can’t add another drive, Storage Spaces won’t let you gracefully degrade the pool (e.g., shift whatever’s on the failing drives to the good drives). So even though my pool had enough space available to hold all the data on its good drives, I was stuck. Gotta be able to add in order to remove. Bizarre.

The resulting confusion and hair-pulling ultimately lead to me copying what files I could out of the pool onto a new (Western Digital) drive hooked up to an add-in SATA card I installed. The net result was the total loss of my desktop system’s file history (the server also plays that role), various backups of other systems, and about 75% of our recorded TV shows. Fortunately that was Really Bad rather than Unbelievably Disastrous since, as I mentioned, we don’t use our DVR much anymore.

Because no Really Bad Computer Day is complete with just one set of problems, I also had to fight with the Gigabyte P55 USB3 motherboard powering the server. It turns out that if the boot process can “see” a hard drive, but can’t identify it, it just stalls. Without any message or beep code or alert of any kind. And either one of the built-in SATA ports is flaky or they have to be “consumed” in a particular order (e.g., master before slave on a given channel), so… It’s disturbing to plug drives in and have them work, only to plug the same drives in to different ports and have the system freeze. With no hint as to what’s wrong.

Now, space is admittedly at a premium for firmware, so it’s not like it can contain a robust error reporting system. OTOH, modern firmware does contain a lot of stuff, including a number of messages. Would it really have been so hard to include “Uh, drive seen but not recognized on SATA port X”? Besides being really helpful, not having such messages violates what I consider to be one of the most important rules of well-designed software: don’t leave the user hanging. Log something, somewhere — screen, log file, carrier pigeon, the location doesn’t matter (so long as it’s known).

There’s nothing worse than trying to figure out a problem with no information as to what it is. It forces you to go into trial and error mode, also known as Keep Moving Everything Around Until It Mysteriously Starts Working Again. Not a pleasant experience, and not one that anyone should have to experience…so long as the software is well-designed.

The morals of the story? A few:

  • If you use Windows Storage Spaces, always leave some unused hard drive ports available in your system.
  • Better yet, think really hard about using Windows Storage Spaces without a full-time IT staff (I’ve abandoned it based on this experience).
  • If your motherboard appears to freeze during the early stages of the boot process, consider that it may be having problems recognizing hard drives but is too ashamed to let you know that.

Thanx, Greenbow! But Not You, Cisco and Microsoft…

I’ve owned a Cisco Small Business router, model RV-325, for several years, and it’s worked very well as a firewall/router. So well, in fact, that after setting it up I think I’ve only had to log into it’s user interface once or twice to check things, or update the firmware.

But it supports VPNs, and I recently had cause to figure out how to set it up to do so. And on that front, it fell flat on its face.

Why is it that people who write hardware manuals assume you already know how to do whatever it is you’re checking the manual to do? It’s really an odd presumption… and an all too common one.

VPNs by their nature — and I am not at all an expert on them, although I know a lot more today than I did five days ago — are complicated, with many options. But that just highlights another problem, this time with hardware user interfaces: if the goal is simple — “I want to be able to access my LAN remotely” — but the steps involved are potentially complex, you need to abstract the interface to the point where the configuration process itself is simple. Or at least provide the option to do so.

When your fire up Word for the first time, you get what looks like a blank sheet of paper and a cursor. And if you start typing, lo and behold, words start appearing on the screen! Even though you didn’t configure anything. You can get started without having to be a tech guru, even when you try to print what your typed (although in that case it helps if your IT staff have named the printers in such a way that you can figure out which one is near you).

I was very much helped in my quest by a company called Greenbow, which makes a Windows VPN client. Whose user interface is admittedly a little less straightforward than perhaps it could be. But which more than makes up for that by actually generating error messages which one can figure out, at least with three days worth of knowledge of VPNs. The fact that I had to pay for it is irrelevant; it’s worth the price, just for that increased capability.

As for the Windows 10 VPN client: it’s so abstracted that I never was able to figure out where to enter certain critical data needed to make a connection. Granted, the user interface is beautifully simple. But it doesn’t support the task.

 

Keeping It Alive

I posted this on nVidia’s support forum, but felt it worth perpetuating somewhere else.

===

I was greatly relieved to see how nVidia is doing such a fine job of keeping alive the beautiful experience of having display drivers crash in the middle of work. Frankly, before I bought my GeForce 210 — running under Windows 10 — it’d been more than a decade since I’d enjoyed the fun of losing work by having a video driver crash and take down my entire system. Now I get to enjoy the ride every other day!

I also really appreciate how the nVidia Control Panel, and the nVidia Experience app, always display error messages when they open up. My particular favorite is “nVidia not available, please try again later”. I view that as a wonderful commentary on the demonstrated quality of nVidia’s software.

By dint of great effort, and working through repeated error messages, I believe my drivers are all up to snuff (I’m currently at version 341.95). I know that Windows 10 is completely up to date, since that happens automatically.

Thanx, nVidia, for perpetuating a key part of the computing experience that I feared had been lost forever.

They Have World Class Talent and This Support Site?!?

I bought Barbara an Intel NUC — a tiny (5 inches square, 1.5 inch tall) computer — a couple of years ago. It’s fast, quiet, small and dependable…up until now.

The other day the wired ethernet connection died. It isn’t a cabling problem — I tested the connection with a Raspberry Pi — and downloading/re-installing the drivers didn’t fix it. So I went to the Intel support site to start a repair ticket.

That’s when the fun started.

[Read more…]

Less Noise Is Good News

In preparation for moving to a new home I’ve been going through my stash of surplus motherboards, hard drives, etc., and getting them ready to donate to the local community college district. This finally caused me to look into disk-scrubbing software, since I don’t want to release drives that may have confidential information on them.

The scrubbing exercise has reminded me of a few things I’d completely forgotten about:

  • I am so glad the industry moved to the SATA interface from PATA. Those !@#$!@#$#@ forty  pin EIDE connectors, and power connectors, are a pain in the butt to remove.
  • It’s laughable how much storage capacities have grown. None of the scrubbed drives are more than eight or so years old, but the earliest ones stored only 6 gigabytes of data. I just built a NAS4Free file server around four 3 terabyte (3,000 gigabyte!) drives, each of which has 500x the capacity of those old drives…in the same volume. For the same cost. In nominal dollars. Wow!
  • Those old drives were noisy. Work environments must have been a lot louder back in the day. Yet I don’t remember that.

Can I Have Some Ice Cream with That?

I got my first Raspberry Pi the other day. For those not in the know, it’s a single-board computer — just barely bigger than a credit card — which runs Debian Linux.

It’s astoundingly cool to run a full-fledged version of Linux — including XWindows — on something that size. Particularly when it only cost $35 (well, the power supply is extra, but let’s not quibble about $10).

I bought the device because I need something to wake up my video server when the remote media extenders are trying to connect to it. Due to an oversight in the design of those extenders, they aren’t smart enough to do that automatically. But it’s a simple task to do within linux, using wakenonlan and xinetd.

I’m still working out a couple of glitches, but if I can get the Pi to fulfill this role that removes the last reason I have for running a linux server as my router/NAT/firewall at home. I’m looking to decommission the server, and the companion Windows 2008 server which runs Exchange, so that I can move my email setup to the cloud, simplifying the IT structure around here in advance of our move into a new home.

And, incidentally, saving some money on electricity :).

Sometimes a Mind Wipe Helps

The other day the system drive — the one containing Windows and all my programs —  died unexpectedly. As in, I didn’t have a backup for it.

Lesson #23,781 learned: never run any solid state drive without a robust backup process. Actually, that’s a revision to lesson #23,103 (“never run a cheap solid state drive without a robust backup process”). Apparently, all solid state drives are both wickedly fast and notoriously unreliable. Compared to dinosaur-like spinning platter drives, at least.

So I got to experience the joys of re-installing everything, including Windows 8, from the ground up.

Actually, it wasn’t all that bad: Win8 installs much faster than previous versions, and my mainstay apps (Microsoft Office and Adobe Master Suite) are sufficiently out-of-date that I didn’t run into any “you’ve already installed our software on another computer!” nonsense. I guess software companies don’t own real computers that, you know, catastrophically fail at unexpected times. Or maybe they all do regular backups.

I also noticed some benefits from doing a clean install: the nifty Win8 power management features now work properly. I can shutdown my system in seconds, and restore it almost as quickly. In fact, I bet if I had a recent “instant on” motherboard the restore would probably be as fast as the shutdown. It’s also nice that it gets restored to exactly where I left off, with the same apps and documents open, although that feature’s been around for awhile.

Tick…Tick…Tick

I managed to dodge a bullet today.

One of the hard drives in my main desktop system has been ticking for several months now. The problem first appeared after I installed Windows 8, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with the new OS. My research into the matter seemed to confirm that, when I found a number of reports of drive ticking caused by overly aggressive head parking by Windows under some circumstances.

But none of the fixes that others used to solve their ticking problems worked in my case. So I did some more digging, and learned that the far more common reason for a drive to be ticking is that it’s about to die.

It would be particularly painful for this specific drive to die because it has all my documents on it, including multiple gigabytes of family photos and videos. And I **blush** don’t do backups as often or as thoroughly as I should.

Replacing the drive and cloning the data from the old one to the new one solved the problem. No more distracting ticking! More importantly, much less risk of losing precious data!

Repeat after me, ten times: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc“. Which is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”. And is a very, very famous logical fallacy.

Which I often quote to others, and should have remembered myself in this instance.