What is a Virtual Operating System?

VM stands for Virtual Machine. It is really just software that runs inside another operating system to run another operating system(s). If you have a large amount of memory an hard drive space you can run several “virtual machines” simultaneously.  You are limited also by your operating system capabilities. For instance, a 32 bit OS may not be able to run an instance of a 64bit operating system. I am hooked on VMWare. I like to use VMWare to run important services because It makes hardware portability a problem of the past.  There is an easy to use conversion tool if you want to move a physical machine into a virtual environment. The desktop version I am using allows me to run the vm’s I have created. That is a huge plus because all I have to do is turn on the computer and whatever I have virtualized just runs. Like this web server that hosts my site.

From free versions to enterprise, every solution vmware provides is efficient and easy to use.

The question for many people is, “Why would I care to use virtual OS?”. The answer is different for everyone. It really does depend on who you are. GAMER, HOME USER, SOFTWARE SPECIALIST, and IT GURU.  These people all have different uses for virtual operating systems.  Then there are packaged VM’s that are designed and distributed freely for specific purposes so diverse and many I cant mention them all.  You just go shopping for it and find something you think is cool! You will find everything from games to VPN solutions.

So here is the plan. We will cover each individuals possible needs.  Then move on to other explanations.

The GAMER: Most gaming situations do not run well in VM if it involves a 3 dimensional environment requiring a large GPU, tons of memory, and processing.  If it is a strategy game or an older game (2 years or more) you can probably swing running it in a VMWare instance.  But why would you???  Several years ago you spent all of this money on your computer just to play these games on a 32bit OS.  Then you decided to do upgrades and now you have a bigger motherboard, video card, tons of memory and a newer operating system.  Unfortunately, the windows 98 games you were running from XP in compatibility mode now do not work because you are runing windows 7!  So – load vmware, install the windows 98 OS, and a windows XP OS. and load the respective games on each instance.  Run only the OS required for the game you are playing.

Business Owner:

The Business Owner with an ancient laptop and NO install discs for that “all too important” application that makes some vital part of their business run  got a virus and I think the laptop was about to go anyway. It seemed like the hard drive was about to give out.

He had just bought a new office full of computers and so I virtualized the laptop and had it running in his workstation. It ran well!  Better in fact. Since it would not be possible to re-install the OS without losing that software this solution was a god send. It allowed him to still access the software on the now stable “virtualized” version of the laptop. I also reloaded the OS on the physical laptop and gave him a clean, fast and secure operating system so he could keep up with his mobile world. I am pretty sure he gave that to his daughter.

THE HOME USER:

I always run across someone with one of those old ancestry programs that is obsolete and out of production.  Yep.  windows 98 only or XP only.  Same deal.  Load the appropriate operating system into vmware – transfer the files in and wala.  Your up and running again.

SOFTWARE SPECIALIST:

Its a no brainer.  If you are developing software for a user community you have multiple different types of operating systems to address.  If its web development you also have several versions of browsers. In that each OS has service packs (or lack there of) as well as different versions of JVM, flash, and so on.  There is no real way to see if it is going to work until you try it in as many different possible environments as possible.  So get cooking.  Build the major operating system releases into vmware.  Make copies.  And differentiate each copy 3 different ways from Sunday. Now you can test your software on any possible environment your brain can conceive!

THE IT GURU

Does it matter what platform you choose?  Unless its apple no it doesn’t.  You can run anything under the sun (almost) in vmware (Not APPLES STUFF).  If it is apple or the exception to this rule – then the platform you choose will probably have a Virtual environment you can leverage.  But do your homework to make sure it has duplication and redundancy.

WHY?? Just take a mail server for example.  It received the messages sent to your organization and passes the information to mobile devices, web interfaces, and your mail clients.  Lets go back a few years.  Everything you have is running inside the server in the closet.  Lighting strikes, there is a fire, and where are we?  In disaster recovery.

So you grab your tape backups from the bank vault (YUCK) and spend days streaming the files and data back out to that $5K  – 10k server you just bought to replace the toasted one.  Now you have to get your mail configuration running, bind it back to the public ip, set up secure certificates, on and on and on…. Maybe a week later you guys are running on your server again.  I’m sure you redirected all the mail to a fail-over service for a time.  But lets face it – if that wasn’t expensive – it just isn’t as fast, your folders and OLD mail is missing, and you cant send out those 30MB email attachments now. Your also gambling that the 3rd party provider isn’t quietly watching your messaging for good nuggets of usable information. Did I mention that phone call to Microsoft or whoever to recover your data you just pulled off those crusty old tapes?

Surprisingly enough – for this very reason a lot of companies would rather pay 28 to 50 per month per user to resolve this issue!  But some just cant afford that.  For the ones who refuse to pay out that money they are either still running like they were 10 years ago or they moved into a virtual environment (SCORE!).

The ones who moved their mail server into a virtual environment have some of the normal things they had before like – big TB storage volumes built on SAS raid arrays that could never fail because of that hot swap sitting their ready to take over. Or the dual power supplies on the server so that if the power goes out there is always one that will for 4 hours while the power is down (just enough time to grab the generator!).

In the enterprise virtual machine world there are new redundancy tools…  Yep!

My optimal situation.  Here is where you grab a seat belt and a Klingon Translator.

This company bought three or more servers with 64Gigs of ram, 9 2TB 15K spin SAS Hard Drives with huge cache, 2 or more 2.6GHZ 4 Core Zeon Processors (current Intel chipset).  Loaded each with vmware esxi. They took one of these monsters and virtualized every possible server environment running in their company that would fit.  Then they shut down all ten of the old servers and turned on this single network connected esxi server.  The company is running on vmware and the energy footprint went down by about 1500 watts per decommissioned server!

They bought a 3 10GB fibre optic switches and 3 10GB fiber-optic transceiver and NICS (outfitting each esxi server).  They ran 10g long range fiber between 3 different buildings as far across campus as they could get. Then the loaded vmotion on a monster of an I.T. workstation that, yes, has a 10G NIC tied into the same 10G network the other 3 servers are on. Lets go a little further and pretend the budget was really good and add some high speed esata 10 drive raid devices to each of the 3 servers.  Lets use DROBO enterprise products and also place one unit in the CEO’s home on a big fiber-optic ISP connection.

They have two or 3 hardware servers running in 3 separate locations.

The loaded server esxi server a has: 1 edge mail, 1 mail hub, 1 mailbox db, 3 dns, 3 dhcp, 3 data, 1 accounting services, 1 payment system, 1 medical record, fax system, phone system, Contact management, thin client server, 3 terminal services servers, and 3 web servers.

In the grand scheme of things the resources on the one server loaded is less than 1 quarter utilized! The other two servers are just waiting for data…

Your IT GURU goes to his workstation.  He visits the web interface of the esxi server and loads vmotion.  Then he logs in.  He can see all 3 servers. All he has to do is set up replication and fail-over. The software does the rest.  Live copies of everything running on the first server populate out to the other two in perhaps a day. The first copy is the longest. After that live changes stream real-time.

Day 2.  Your IT GURU goes to his workstation and decides what applications really need to run where. Building 1 – Administration, building 2 Accounting, building 3, operations.  So he marks the appropriate resources to run from these appropriate locations.  And then goes to lunch.

Day 3.  Drunk driver runs into the power pole outside building 2.  well, the servers in building 1 and 3 takeover – dynamically splitting the load for best performance.  Now there is a maintenance issue on server 1.  For some reason the boss decided to turn off the ac and the heat kicked on in the server room.  The Intel board sensed the temperature increase and safely shut down to prevent any damage. Server 3 is holding down the fort.  Amaren came out and restored power to building 2 and its like – nothing ever happened.

Day4. It GURU gets busy setting up automated snapshots and having them copied out to the drobo in the respective locations.

Day5.  It GURU uses Drobo replication to securely copy everything out to the CEO’s drobo in his home.

Small note: The drives are encrypted.  They are massive paperweights unless you have the correct apps, and passwords to access them.  We are ARMY strong with our encryption here!  LOL. Some of you security freaks know exactly what application I am talking about don’t you. Plausible Deni-ability?

Day 6.  Who cares. Its a Saturday.  Lets take the wife and kid out on the town and have some fun!

What are you going to do when your Exchange Server running on bare metal bytes the dust because of some board failure??  You have to replace the hardware (expensive and time consuming).  Then you have a 48 hour build ahead of you and a 24 hour data recovery if your mail stores are nearly as large as the average ones I manage.  If your not Microsoft certified it will probably include some grueling phone time.

VMWare Vmotion is cool technology I really would like to apply.  It leverages a second or third vmserver running in the back that is an actual live copy of the first – with every guest operating system it hosts running and intact to the second. If you dump vmserver 1 and your webserver is being visited by a guest vmserver 2 picks up where 1 left off.  The webserver which is now running on vmserver 2 picks up where it left off. If you ask me – this seamless recovery is the way to go when it could take hours or even days any other way.

If you do not use vmotion then you have to turn down a guest os and copy its files out to direct attached storage (fast) or over the network (slow) as a backup solution.  This method of redundancy is common and effective but backups are only as current as the last time you performed the backup. Automating this type of task can be tricky.

A lot of companies us virtual environments to test software on different platforms – or to run obsolete software packages. Having an xp workstation, a windows 2000 system, and linux running on the same workstation is a great help for a developer like myself. Virtualizing your operations will open many doors.

I am not advocating you use just VM Ware specifically.  I am suggesting it because I use esxi as well as the older vmware server (a desktop product).  Microsoft has a virtual platform, Ubuntu 11’s server platform has os virtualization and so does Apple.  There are a myriad of other companies who are trying to virtualize operating systems for various reasons. In the world of data backups, redundancy, and disaster recovery. Paragon now has an excellent solution to deal with many of the above mentioned vm formats. One of their products even allows you to boot the backup image. Its affordable too!!  Who knew..

The Small Things Matter

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I am using my phone for this one so I need to keep it simple. A lot of small needs came through the door this week. The devil is in the details. One browser hijack, one “lost” app,  an email client imap issue,  and a computer tweak over a remote support session. There were many others but I simply can’t talk about all of them.

It is so important to take the time to concentrate completely on one task. I make sure when I am done there is nothing more I could do. This way whatever I do is efficiently done right.

The trouble shooting on the browser hijack is easy.  The cure is even more important.   When the normal methods of recovery from something like this fail I take a radical approach that saves every piece of data.  I build a gorgeous new os with all available updates and performance enhancements.   I put the data back on and deliver the finished product to the customer.  While on site I make sure printers,  networks,  and software are working.   When I am done that 30 day warranty is the furthest worry from my mind!

Lost app was unique.   Businesses come across smaller applications and sometimes lose the cd and the  registration key! This time they had that one system with a working copy.  So their decision was either pay me 1 hour to hack that software so it ran on all of the computers or pay $300 per license to buy it again?  That is not a traditional request but guess what?   Piece of cake!

A customer called in stating his inbox items just dissapeared from outlook.   Wierd right?   Webmail works perfectly though.   It took 30 minutes to repair the outlook account during the remote support session.   It was a simple miscommunication between the client and the IMAP server.

I was asked to solve some issues on another computer remotely.   During that remote session I found the processor maxed and the memory completely used.  It was slow going.  I used my favorite performance tweak and rebooted.   As soon as I was re-connected I loaded antivirus and upgraded the fiirefox browser (per the customer request) .  Lastly,  I performed an eicar test.  As I finished the computer was all secure and running fast!

Midnight Tech

Drafting Division

One of my business customers called today with a printer issue. It simply was not working. The printer was located in the drafting department. These guys are some of the highest paid in the company because their work generates bids on work that enterprise customers of the company will hopefully accept.

I try to keep network configurations as simple as possible. KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – applies most of the time. If you don’t run as simple as you can there is always something else to break and the more complex it is the harder it is to fix it.  Downtime equals bad PR!

When I was first introduced to the drafting department the company was moving onto Panda Managed Office Protection. The drafting guru is very particular. He is a super type A individual which is important if your a drafter.  He was running AVAST and SPYBOT Search and Destroy and MCAFFEE and .. and .. and .. and … at  a time I was working on the corporate antivirus solution. His computer was not accessible to me and I was trying to get access. I had seen how his security software was set up and was gently trying to explain that if one solution from panda were installed, removing all others, his performance and security would be greatly improved. The product runs mostly in the cloud and can be managed from anywhere. It is very efficient and powerful.  It was a tense moment when he rejected the idea for me. I respected his choice and view and moved on.

Previously the drafting person had only his own needs to worry about. This Guru’s workload had increased a great deal. He needed to take on some help. The company called inquiring on how to set up a secure network just for the drafting department. The company as a whole is running off of a Cisco RV016 multi wan vpn router with multi-homing and a good firewall that allows you to set up very specific traffic rules. It is a really cool and very affordable piece of equipment that I could have used to provide the solution they wanted. It has the ability to separate the drafting department from the rest of the company and even put them on a separate sub-net.  But it was also very important that I give the guru something physical to place his trust in because virtual network security measures cant be seen or quantified. Its a pretty big deal for someone like that to be able to see the protection. It is a a peace of mind thing. He wanted to make sure no one from the company could access his computer except for members of his department. I took a wireless router the office manager had in a closet and placed it in the drafting office. The uplink on wireless router grabs a dynamic IP on the existing corporate network.  I configured its lan interface to provide a unique private network subnet that is far different from the norm.

The drafting office is surrounded by equipment. There are plotters and printers all over the place. Some of them have network interfaces and some do not. Since the Guru had always used USB connections to the printers I just shared all of them from his computer and mapped them for the other user.  This has worked well for quite some time.  It is a very simple solution.  But today the Xerox Phaser Solid Media Printer was not working.

I spoke with them over the phone and had them check that it was not operating in offline mode. It had been. However, changing the device to an online status had no effect.  They quickly set up an appointment. I went out and discovered that the USB interface was partially blown on the printer. It did not allow the connecting computer to properly detect the model. I plugged the Phaser into the network and mapped directly to it from both computers. Problem solved.

It was good to be able to go out and see the drafting team. I was very happy to be able to help them and I look forward to the next time.

Midnight Tech

The Friend of a Friend I.T. Situation

I need to emphasize that as a business owner and an information technology person the friend situation is always brutal. It never seems to matter how good your intentions are – someone always seems to get hurt.  But when I am asked to do something for a friend I still do my best.  Some get it.  Some don’t.  I always hope they see the glass half full.

A friend of mine said he had a friend who was getting involved in a new venture.  The software they purchased had been installed on a single computer.  It was slow and undependable.  I was asked to provide a solution that would guarantee a solid future for this company’s operations on the software front. I needed to reduce the probability of a system failure. So I verbally quoted out a server and a network for around 5k. I was assuming the “customer” would buy everything else that was needed.  A week went by and more interest was shown.  A formal quote was needed.

Big hardware quotes are hard because you need to have a system to quote, sell, report shipping, record notes and record payments from start to finish.  Some companies have multiple systems that overlap and require dual entry.  Mine does not.  For instance – the POS system I did last week. It handles inventory, sales, ordering, payroll, tax, statistical analysis, and lots of other things.  But, at the end of the day the numbers are duplicated into quick books by accountants. This duplication of effort costs a lot of time and money.

Every point of sale system needs to have the product you are selling in its database. I designed my system in the form of an online store. It handles marketing, communication, payroll, tax, quoting, sales, payments, delivery, notes, and credit card processing.  None of that changes the fact that I had to manually enter every single product.  A time consuming task at the least.  I guess that’s the point. You always have to work to earn a living honestly.

The products I had to enter in addition to the server involved four boxes of cable because the customer needed the ability to run four cables at a time.  He needed equipment to terminate the cables on both ends. He needed a server rack to house the equipment neatly, and lots of patch cables to tie everything into the switch. The formal quote came out to 4k or so. I felt I had done very well considering the verbal quote was higher.

Here is where it gets interesting. This customer presented an American Express and to my surprise my system would not accept it. I had to go get a check which hurt the customers cash flow and caused frustration and embarrassment. I scrambled to get American Express set up. Later when the check cleared I did a quality control check before ordering the equipment. I discovered that the server had no operating system (my supplier said it had one but was mistaken).  I also realized I needed to have another hard drive for data redundancy on the server.

There were inexpensive options available. I could run an operating system I owned on that server. The software vendor requested server 2003 and I have a copy that I use hosting my systems.  Server 2003 can’t be purchased right now. It is more important that the customer own the operating system. I had to quote a copy of server 2008 and another hard drive for a combined total of $1100.

I see a lot of tech companies fix computers using operating systems that are not provided by or paid for by their customers.  This practice forces the customer to come back whenever there are problems.  Without the operating system disk or a valid software license where else can they go?  For this reason I think it is unethical to place software the customer does not own on their system.  Several years back I vowed I would never do that to anyone.  I have held true to that standard.  Most customers don’t realize that situation exists.  So when I sell them an operating system they think they are paying too much and I am giving them a bad deal.  In reality – I am really doing them a favor.

Unfortunately for me and my customer server operating systems go for $800 and up.  Server hard drives go for $250.  After successfully setting up American Express I ran the additional purchase on the customers American Express Card.  When the payment clears the bank the order will go out.  2 days later the product will be delivered.  Then I will go on site to install. That is quality time with the customer. Time with the customer is a priceless opportunity to deliver the best customer service and experience humanely possible.

Midnight Tech

POS – Slow credit card processing is no more

Last week, I think on Thursday after I had dropped a big email, I was looking for an more permanent solution.  The issue we had with credit cards that were taking 80 seconds to process was old. The stand alone card machine on the counter was working fine but the owner wanted the POS to work.  I had sent an email to the store owner, the reseller, and the merchant that sold the POS.  The gist was that we were going to make a big change the next week because of the performance issue we had been experiencing.

The reseller, Linda, really came through again.  Separated, neither Linda or the merchant had the whole story so no one could solve the issue. Linda wanted to get the merchant on the phone. The back story here is the merchant, a nice lady who will remain nameless, was very involved in the initial install.  It just did not go well and at times seemed to place her in a bad light. So she was not extremely happy about the situation and probably blamed Linda. You can probably imagine two frustrated women and me on a phone call. It was a tense call. But luckily, I was able to lead the conversation to the big question. “What other networks do you suggest we use with the third party software?”.  The question behind that was, “Which ones might Linda have the ability to resell?”.  Of course the merchant wanted to sell the proprietary network because she knew it was going to work.  Also because she would get a percentage of the proceeds from every sale in the future.  But we needed the question answered. The difference in the discount rate and the other subtleties in the contract could cost the company millions. This is why you always want to avoid the proprietary world. Its expensive in ways you don’t often think about. My feeling? If we are now getting discount rates of less than 2% because Linda resold the network and she wants to cut a great deal on a network that isn’t slow then I am all about it. We were able to get a few answers and it was just enough information to move forward.

A day later Linda had looked at three other networks.  One was a broken relationship (interesting story and I still respect Linda).  A second one was a good pick because it was a network she did not know would work. She did her homework and found out it was fully certified by the third party software. The third network never got a chance.  I said go, a day passed and I had all the paperwork from linda and had forwarded it on to the CEO.  A day later the CEO responded with signed paperwork that linda received.  Another day went by and the new encryped pinpads came in. I was on site for most of the day setting up the third party software, installing new pin pads, and reprogramming the stand alone credit card machine for data-wire and dial up on the new network.  It had to accept credit, debit, and electronic checks.  Its all such a blur.  I had so many other things going on I could not give you a real timeline if I tried.  Not that it matters.

Today I was informed all is well.  The POS is fast and stable.  There are no problems.  Kudos to Linda for a job well done!  Thank you Linda for your hard work!

Midnight Tech

New POS Credit Card Solution

I get calls from local businesses all the time. Every call is about something broken or something that is needed. One of the nice things about providing a good solution is having a positive effect on people. If your working with a business your success impacts the staff and the people it serves. That’s a great experience!

Today I finished implementing a credit card processing solution for a new business in Marion IL.  This project has lasted a few weeks. Sometimes getting computer software to work well with credit card processing networks isn’t easy.

Let me explain how that works. Commonly a Point Of Sale (POS) system will be designed in a proprietary fashion. They brand it and build it in a way so there are controls in place on how their product is used and by whom. This sometimes forces a merchant to purchase credit card processing through the proprietary vendor who sold the POS system.  Proprietary vendors almost always charges higher rates on credit and debit card transactions than the market is offering. The vendor will have larger profits this way as long as they keep getting new customers on their contracts.  Most new business owners just don’t know the details and they get whatever they sign up for.  I think sometimes the programmer just picks one processor to limit the chaos of having to provide a payment interface to multiple different networks.

My processor reseller, Linda, is a free agent who I trust to offer credit card processing solutions to my customers. I normally have several suggestions on what POS software solutions will work well with each business. I provide that information to the owners and when they have had time to look at the options and make a choice I have them take their decision to Linda. Linda works out the CC processing accounts. She does a great job getting the best deals.

The POS software purchased at this new business uses a 3rd party software solution to interface with the “non-proprietary” credit card networks. The network Linda provided has discount rates that are less than 2%. Unfortunately, the first day we connected the POS system and programmed it to use that network there was a problem.  All of the credit card and debit transactions were taking 80 seconds. There is one stand-alone credit card machine on the counter that is also used to accept checks electronically. They were using it to process credit and debit cards since the POS card swipes were so slow.

During the troubleshoot I looked at the local network, the operating systems, the antivirus solutions, I tried using a different router, I ran the 3rd party app from a completely different system, and I tried running a different version of the 3rd party app.  No change that was made on site had any effect on the slow speed of these transactions. So I could prove the problem was not on site. It is important to do that. In situations such as this I am working through three degrees of separation from the credit card processor. Every vendor associated with the credit card system is blaming another vendors system. You have to be able to isolate who’s system is not performing. This was a bad configuration for the account the business had on credit card processors front end network.

As soon as the troubleshoot was done I ordered a pin pad for the stand-alone credit card machine so they could run debt transactions from there also.  A day later Linda and I set the 3rd party app to temporarily use a different network. The business needed to use that solution until a new permanent credit card processing account was ready. It takes about a week for a merchant credit card processing account to be created. They have a lot of security and regulations to take into consideration.  They have to interface directly with the merchants bank account.

Monday I received a call from the processor that the account was ready. This morning I went over to the store and spent an hour on the phone with the credit card processor and the support team for the 3rd party software.  We re-programmed the 3rd party software to use the new account that was built. I am excited to say it worked. Both credit and debit cards are running as fast as 2 seconds from the POS system. They are very happy and so am I!

Welcome to our official blog

Welcome to our official blog site.  Please allow us some time to get this page organized the way we would like it to be.  Any attention you can send our way would be very much appreciated.  Specifically to our FAQ page.  We are gunning to get that page to take off and have a life of its own.

Just for your convenience I added a navigational bar above this post for you to access the two pages of our blog that are currently present.  And to make it simpler you can also use the links I am providing below.  I hope to add images soon so it is more visual.

FAQ Page

Here you can ask us any question you like that deals with computers, macs, networks, websites, programming, etc.  We will answer you well.

Web Dev Projects Area

Here you can see the different projects we have been involved in and get the inside scoop about them.  We are still coming up with content so please check back for more changes and additions to this page.