Category Archives: Operating Systems

Overarching category for OS’s

How to Simply Rip DVDs in 64-bit Windows

Handbrake iconIn the past, we’ve looked at how to easily rip DVDs on the Windows platform. That method still works great, unless you’re on a 64-bit version of Windows. For those of us now running Windows 7 64-bit, we have a problem: DVD43 – a required decrypter used in the previous tutorial, does not get along well with 64-bit versions of Windows.

The Solution – Handbrake with libdvdcss

There’s an easy solution to this problem, and it only requires the installation of one software program. I’ve migrated to the mighty Handbrake for all my DVD rips. First, install the 64-bit version of Handbrake. As of this writing, the latest version is 0.9.6. Continue reading How to Simply Rip DVDs in 64-bit Windows

Microsoft takes another hit: NGINX tops IIS

Some bloggers have suggested that ripping on Microsoft is going out of style… but this week Microsoft’s beleaguered IIS web server got bested by the open source NGINX web server.

Web Server Statistics
Microsoft IIS goes down

My beefs with Microsoft are many, however, I will tip my hat to Bill Gate’s many generous donations to charity. That’s really the most remarkable thing about Microsoft: it gave birth to one of the most magnanimous philanthropists of an entire generation, and no words can express thanks for that.

Continue reading Microsoft takes another hit: NGINX tops IIS

Comparison of VPS Providers

So you’ve graduated from the world of shared hosting providers and it’s time for you to set up your own big-boy hosting package. You need a Virtual Private Server (VPS) of some sort, but the options are dizzying because these services have become a commodity: it seems that nearly everyone is peddling some variation of them. Well, we feel your pain. And I feel my own pain… I’ve dealt with a number of hosting providers over the past few years, and I’m writing this article to share with you my opinions. I’ve set up accounts for myself or for my clients on all of the following systems, and here is my unbridled opinion of each of them. Keep in mind that these reviews and opinions relate primarily to using the services for web hosting.

These aren’t affiliate links unless otherwise indicated (hey, if you want to throw us a bone for saving you the pain of experiencing these guys yourself, then please, feel free to click the affiliate link: it costs you nothing and it is your way of saying “thanks for saving me the trouble of learning this stuff the hard way”).

LiquidWeb

LiquidWeb has impressed me with its clean integrations and its “heroic support”. That doesn’t mean they’ve been able to fix every problem I’ve had, but to be fair, a lot of the tricky stuff was weird 3rd party installs that *I* struggle with greatly. But they have been very responsive in their tickets and I’ve never felt abandoned or in the dark.

The standard VPS’s offer a good value, but if you need more horsepower, their SmartServers offer a nice combination of virtual/cloud and dedicated qualities, and it’s a good combo for many folks. These come by default with WHM/cPanel, so it’s easy to set up sub-accounts with their own logins. Throw me a Bone (affiliate link)

Media Temple

This is a popular option, although I’m not sure why… their cloud servers go down frequently, they’ve had several pretty severe security issues, and using SSH on their servers is a holy pain in the ass because SSH dumps you in some foreign directory miles away from your home directory, whereas FTP takes you to your home directory. What? Yes, it is obnoxious and confusing, and they disconnect your SSH session after 5 minutes, which is approximately 1 minute less than the time it takes you to RTFM through your notes and emails to find where the hell your home directory is or which command you need to run to escalate yourself to the proper user to be able to do anything useful. MediaTemple uses Plesk to offer control panels to their clients, and Plesk is a nightmare if you ever try to do any sysadmin work on the command line. I’ve had a couple clients on MediaTemple, and it just seems like it’s a rocky road with bumps in the service and difficulties in doing basic tasks. It’s not the worst out there, but I wouldn’t rate MediaTemple as anything better than mediocre.

VPS.net

I do not recommend these guys. They do have a nice looking site and what looks to be a nice product, but my experience with them was wholly negative. “Jeez”, you might be thinking, “don’t flame a brother in writing!”, but sit down around the campfire and let me tell you why I feel completely comfortable doing so….

It all started when I set up a VPS server with VPS.net and I signed up for their paid snapshots knowing that I was liable to screw up my server at some point and I’d want to roll back to a snapshot image. Sure enough, I borked my server by removing the sqlite package, which completely destroyed the functionality of my yum utility (don’t ever do what I did, by the way). “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll just roll back.” Well, the restoration process had a fatal flaw, which completely toasted my server. After using their “restoration” utility, I didn’t just have a server with a broken yum utility, I had a completely fried server (ooo… that’s a bad code taco on that one). The people over at VPS.net were completely unwilling to admit the problem. I wasted about 2 days waiting for them to either fix the problem or to just come clean and say “hey, we’re really sorry, but we had a glitch in our snapshot utility so we only have partial backups of your server.” No. They hemmed and hawed and wasted my time for 2 days until finally one of the techs admitted that there had been a problem. I think he was probably later executed by firing squad for insubordination and refusing to tow the party line. I needed to clock in about 40 hours (all un-billable, by the way) to rebuild the server from scratch, and they acted like the Soviets when Chernobyl blew up: in typical fashion they denied anything happened until European scientists started measuring massive amounts of radiation and said “uh, comrades… did something happen at your reactor?”

While waiting days for a response (all while my server and all of its sites were completely down), my patience got exhausted, so I finally threatened to make a blog post like this one. The CTO jumped in saying “I was approaching this in the wrong way”. I listed the several tickets that I had filed that had gotten no response for 48 hours (even ones that *he* had initially responded to). And then even the CTO stopped responding to my requests for information (read: he must have known how badly they screwed up). His response was literally an advertisement: he blabbed on about how awesome their servers were and what great new offerings were available. I felt like he had just run over my dog, and instead of apologizing for killing my best friend, he was yammering on about awesome his car was with its dual-hemi’s, turbo-charged engine and high-performance tires. The final “kiss my ass” message they sent me was a legalese “F-U” which basically stated that none of their services, including backups, were guaranteed. Seriously, I don’t often say stuff like this this in writing, but VPS.net can go french kiss a donkey’s ass. I gave them every opportunity to respond to my questions or to justify their actions, and they ignored me, so I feel I’m being more than fair.

So dealing with VPS.net cost me several thousand dollars, it almost cost me a client, and their ineptitude set me back on several high priority projects, and their response to a completely legitimate issue was childish and unprofessional, and my requests for just basic professionalism were ignored. So there you have it: my rant against VPS.net. Use their services at your own risk.

VPSlink.com

These guys offer a simple no-frills hosting package, and I’ve used them for several dev projects over the years. Nothing fancy, but they are responsive to the requests, and I’ve only had minimal fuss with their servers and their control panel is easy to navigate. They may not give you as much RAM as some for the price, but they do give you lots of CPUs (like 16!). I like these guys and I give them a good thumbs up. There is no cPanel type dashboard for sub-accounts, so this one is only for command-line sysadmins only.

ServerAxis.com

This is another no-frills VPS system that offers some pretty nice stats for the price: lots of RAM and a good amount of CPU. They offer a few more options than VPSLink (e.g. you can pay extra to get an external backup volume mounted to your server), and they are a bit more scalable, but I didn’t find their admin panels very intuitive, so I’ve lost time fumbling through them. There is no cPanel type dashboard for sub-accounts, so this one is only for command-line sysadmins only, but still a solid thumbs-up with these guys.

GoDaddy

Ah yes, now even GoDaddy is offering VPS services (hey, we said this stuff is becoming a commodity). The prices there look competitive, but my experiences with GoDaddy as a host have been mindbogglingly poor. Their shared hosting is a complete disaster — hands down, it’s the worst I’ve seen… they arbitrarily limit functionality, it takes hours to complete tasks that take only minutes on other hosts, and all for a cost that is higher than their competitors. I even had one of their techs tell me that the MySQL dump was “working perfectly” when the log file showed clearly that there was an error. Blink. Are they blind? Or just stupid? They also had zero understanding of how DNS records worked, so they weren’t able to offer any assistance in configuring a custom zone file. Furthermore, their dashboard is impossibly confusing to navigate. Do you know that weird castille soap by Dr. Bonner? I’m pretty sure the intern that did the layout for that soap is the same person who did the UI for GoDaddy’s control panel because I always have to dial their support # when I have to do anything in there.

Did the same guy do GoDaddy's control panel layout?
Layout designed by GoDaddy: Worst Layout Ever

I mean seriously… can you read that?

So even though these look like competitive prices, I have severe reservations about using GoDaddy as anything more than a registrar. Hey, I want to jump on Danica Patrick as much as the next horny guy, but maybe if they spent some time cleaning up their site and services instead of Super Bowl ads and models, they’d have a product worth recommending, but as it stands, you should pass on GoDaddy as a host.

Amazon cloud EC2

This is a popular option because hey, it’s Amazon… but I’ve found EC2 cloud stuff to be a pain in the ass to use simply because you get lost on the command line. It’s worse than MediaTemple from a command-line standpoint. In my opinion, being on the cloud means your data theoretically is always there (there are outages), but if you’re coming in via SSH, then you can’t find it. Haha. Only sort of kidding there. In general, this isn’t a very nice option for those people doing simple web hosting types of services. It’s more appropriate for companies doing persistent application deployments.

Other Providers

I feel obligated to mention the following 2 providers because so many people I work with recommend them highly:

I don’t have first hand experience with them, so I can’t comment directly.

Conclusion

There are a lot of options out there, but with enough time, patience, and trouble-shooting elbow-grease, you can find a web host that works for you.

Networx – Free Bandwidth Monitoring Software (Getting the Most Out of It)

Systems: Windows Only (2000, XP, Vista, 2008 / Both 32 and 64 bit)

Donationware: Technically it’s free, but when you see the level of craftsmanship in this program, you will want to donate.

Website: Softperfect.com

networx-prevI recently changed ISPs to one with much more consistent service, but the trade off is that I now have a rather small bandwidth cap. As much as we hate them, bandwidth caps are probably in all of our futures. The important thing is to have control over and be informed of your usage (before the bill arrives). I needed a reliable way to keep track of my bandwidth, so I tested out several free bandwidth monitoring softwares. My ISP has its own online bandwidth usage calculated, but I wanted a redundant system (one which I could use to make sure they were honest in their tracking).  In my experiments, I found Networx to be the best. Its primary virtue is its ability to be as advanced as you need it to be. For my multiple computer home network, it has every feature I could ask for. Let’s take a closer look.

The software is so unobtrusive; it even lacks a full control window.  Instead, you can access all aspects of the software from the taskbar icon.

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A left click will give you a quick bandwidth summary/ a right click will show you the menu.

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Before we get to ridiculous number of features available in the menu, let’s check out my favorite feature.A right click anywhere on the task bar brings up a windows menu that has a “toolbars” option, if you go there you will find a new entry: Networx Desk Band. Activating this toolbar gives you a quick real time read out.

Networxscreen3

I know what you’re thinking: But I don’t like red and white graphs! Well, you can fully customize that little read out; I’ll get to that a little later on.First, lets go back to that right click menu from the Networx taskbar icon.

Your first 3 options all work together:

Show Graph

– This displays a full size visual read out that you can place on your desktop wherever you want.

Networxscreen4

Reset Graph (Only present if “Show Graph” is clicked first) – This option will clear the current data displayed on the graph, not unlike the trip counter reset in your car.

Enable Click Through (Only present if “Show Graph” is clicked first) – Will make the graph act as if it is not really there.You can literally click through the graph to select things. Be careful though, this means you can’t resize or move the graph window without turning off “Click Through” the same way your turned it on.

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Speed Meter

– This works sort of like a heart monitor for you bandwidth.You hit “Play” and for the duration you allow it to run, it records average, maximum and total transfer.You can then export it directly to a txt file.

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Usage Statistics

– You can access this menu from a double click on the icon.This will probably be your most visited window in the battle to keep informed about transfer totals. The first thing you will see is the “General” Tab:

Not much to do here, except see a quick summary of your total usage all in one place.

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The Daily Report – Here is where you can really begin to see detail present in this program.If you have this set up on the family computer, you can directly see what day of the month the highest transfer happened.If you are not a fan of the spread sheet, they also provide you a visual readout of the past week.

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Weekly/Monthly Report – The same data as the daily, but handily calculated for you either size increment.

Custom – The most powerful data aggregator in this entire software. You can give it the date-through-date specifics and it will automatically set up the graph in the most appropriate way.

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Dial-up Sessions – If you have a minute/transfer based dial-up connection, this tab is vital.It records every time you connect to your dial up provider, the date, amount of time spent, transfers, etc.You might think this is outdated, but you would be surprised how many areas still do not have broadband.

Hourly Rates – for you true statistics hounds out there, you can follow your transfer rates on an hourly basis.

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Export – Oh yeah, you can also export all of these charts to Excel for easy archiving.

Users – If everyone who uses the computer has separate logons, you can track the data per user.You know, easily figure out which roommate is the bandwidth hog.

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Quota

This is a handy system for letting you set the maximum transfer/duration.For me that is 50 gigs per month.I set it at 45 gigs, however, because it notifies you with a little pop-up window when you have met your quota.

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Settings

All of the settings for the program.Let’s go one tab at a time.

General – This tab has the settings for “Load on Windows Startup, Check for Updates”, And most importantly: Which internet connection is monitored. This is essential if you have multiple connections, or utilize a different connection for intra-network traffic.

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Graph – Settings to tweak how the graph output functions.This is really for power users who want control over aspect of their graph.

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Graph Colors – This may seem trivial or nit-picky, but on some monitors you may want to adjust the colors of the graph for optimal resolution.High contrast is an option in every aspect of most operating systems for those who need it for accessibility.Or, you may just want to make it look pretty.

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Notifications – This tab’s settings tell the software when you notify you of certain things.It can tell you if your connection falls below it’s usual transfer rate, or if it exceeds a predetermined speed.You can also customize how exactly it notifies you, a tone or a pop up, ect.

Advanced – There is one truly important feature in here.In this tab you can set what day your billing cycle begins on. I’m lucky, my bandwidth resets at midnight on the first.For some of you, it might be on the 14th or 21st, etc. DO NOT FORGET TO SET THIS, OR YOUR TOTAL BANDWIDTH USED FOR THE MONTH WILL NOT BE ACCURATE!

If you have multiple computers using the same network, you will need to install Networx on all of them, and tick the box under “Synchronization” or else YOU WILL ONLY BE TRACKING THE DATA TRANSFERRED FROM THIS COMPUTER.That will not be an accurate measure of the total usage.

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Trace Route

– This is a power user feature.Your average user will never have a need to track a packet from your computer to a source IP.

Ping

– This works the same way as the command line ping.You enter a location to ping, and it will tell you the millisecond duration of the test transfer.

NetStat

– This is pretty useful, it lists every program or service that is accessing the internet, or has rights to do so, and where it’s sending from and to.

Conclusion

So that’s about all you need to know to keep up with your bandwidth use by utilizing Networx. If you have a different favorite Bandwidth tracker, let us know in the comments below.I am on month 2 of using Networx, and have had no problems, if you have, also let us know.At the end of my first month of use, there was a 458 megabyte discrepancy between my Networx report and my ISPs total report.I attribute this to the Xbox360 updates and purchases along with my iPhone app downloads.

iStat Pro is an Awesome Free System Monitoring Widget

icon-istatproFor Mac OS 10.4 or higher: iStat pro is a system monitoring widget that has it all.

iStat proMain site

Like any system monitor worth its salt, iStat pro displays vital information about your:

  • CPU
  • Memory
  • Hard disk(s)
  • Network
  • Temps
  • Fan speed
  • Battery (for laptops)
  • Uptime and System load
  • Running Processes

istat-pro-widget

Unlike some other system monitoring tools for Mac OS X, iStat pro runs in the Dashboard instead of in the System Menu or the Dock. To me, this is preferable because I can quickly send it completely out of the way when I don’t need to check any system stats.

Okay, so it displays system stats. Is that all?

Nope. For starters, one cool aspect of iStat pro is that it displays your external IP address under the Network section. Pressing the i key (provided iStat is the active widget) will copy that external IP to your clipboard, which is handy for network admins.

istat-pro-prefsYou can also customize the stew of the widget. Want only certain elements (such as CPU, Temps, and Memory) to display? No problem, just turn off the others in the Preferences.

Want the stats widget to display vertically instead of horizontally? Yep, it can do that.

Want to rearrange the order of the elements? Just drag-and-drop.

Dislike the default color? Just pick from any of the nine included colors. There’s bound to be one you like.

If you’re totally hardcore about system monitoring, you can buy the iStat for iPhone app ($2) and check your Mac’s system stats remotely from your iPhone or iPod touch.

Hotkeys

For you hotkey aficionados, here’s a list of the available hotkeys for iStat pro, taken directly from the manual.

c – Show or hide the CPU section
m – Show or hide the memory section
d – Show or hide the disks section
n – Show or hide the network section
p – Show or hide the processes section
u – Show or hide the uptime section
b – Show or hide the battery section
f – Show or hide the fans section
t – Show or hide the temps section
s – Swap between tall and wide skins
i – Copy external IP to the clipboard
g – Update external IP
1 – 8 – Change skin colour

iStat pro is freeware/donationware from iSlayer.

WinCDEmu Integrates Disk Image Mounting in Windows Explorer

WinCDEmu - Right-click We’ve written before about Virtual CloneDrive, software that can mount and run disk images as if they are physical disks. A similar free program is WinCDEmu.

WinCDEmu – Main site

WinCDEmu – SourceForge page

WinCDEmu is free and open-source, and makes mounting a disk image (*.ISO, *.CUE, *.BIN, *.RAW, and *.IMG) as easy as double-clicking.

In case you are not familiar with disk images, here’s what you need to know: an image is the re-creation of the contents of a CD or DVD saved into a single file. That file will have an extension such as *.ISO, the most-common type.

These disk images are typically burned back onto a CD or DVD using disk-burning software such as InfraRecorder (free). For instance, if you want to download and use a Linux distro, you typically download the ISO and then burn it to a CD, thus allowing you to boot and run from that physical disk.

Software such as WinCDEmu allows you to skip the actual burn and instead use the ISO as a virtual disk. When you mount an ISO (or other image) as a virtual disk, your computer treats it just like a physical one with the benefit that virtual drives operate much faster than physical drives.

Installation and Usage

WinCDEmu - Verify Installing WinCDEmu seems almost too easy. There’s no notification that the install was successful, nor will you find anything new in the Start Menu. The only hurdle at all is telling Windows that yes, you want to install an unverified driver.

It will show up as part of Add/Remove Programs, so you can uninstall it from there if necessary.

Using WinCDEmu is brain-dead simple. For any disk image on your system, just double-click it to mount, and it will show up in Windows Explorer just as if you popped a CD/DVD in the drive. Yes, it works just like Mac OS X, which is a good thing.

To un-mount (or eject) the virtual disk, simply double-click that same disk image (such as the original ISO file, not the mounted image in Explorer).

You can also right-click the virtual drive and Eject. Piece of cake.

WinCDEmu supports an unlimited number of simultaneously mounted virtual drives. It also supports SMB network shares, but be sure to look up the workaround for a Windows cache bug.

Disable the “Install Updates and Shut Down” Option in Windows

install-updates-and-shutdownHave you ever been annoyed at the Install Updates and Shut Down message that displays after Windows Update runs in the background?

It’s easy to avoid this message entirely and force any pending updates to stay associated with the yellow shield in the system tray. This is one setting that I always configure for any machine under my control, mainly to inspect any pending updates before I choose to install them. It’s also handy for avoiding the dreaded WGA notification tool.

On to business: this tip works on XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

First, launch the Group Policy editor by going to Start – Run, and typing:

gpedit.msc

Note: if you don’t see the Start → Run button, just press the Windows key + R.

Once the Group Policy editor opens, expand Computer Configuration, then Administrative Templates, then Windows Components.

group-policy-editor-windows-components

Select the Windows Update component to view a list of settings. Double-click the setting for Do not display ‘Install Updates and Shut Down’ option in Shut Down Windows dialog box.

group-policy-editor-windows-update

In the window that spawns, set it to Enabled and click OK. I agree that this is somewhat unintuitive to enable it, but remember that you are affirming a negative, if that makes sense.

group-policy-editor-windows-update-enable

That’s it! You should no longer see the Install Updates and Shut Down message.