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.

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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.