Turn Windows Server 2008 into an Excellent Workstation – Part I – Basics

In a previous post, I mentioned how to get Windows Server 2008 for free (students only). For those of you who take advantage of that offer, rest assured that you can turn Server 2008 into an excellent workstation operation system. With a tiny bit of work, Server 2008 can look and act similar to Windows Vista.

Undoubtedly, someone is bound to ask, why on earth would you waste time turning Server 2008 into Vista when you can just use Vista?

It’s a good question, and I doubt I will answer it satisfactorily. Yes, Vista and Server 2008 share the same code base. If you already own Vista, you have no real need to switch to Server 2008. In my case, I do not own Vista, so this guide is geared more toward people like myself.

Another consideration is that Server 2008 installs with far fewer features and services enabled by default. Compared to default Vista, there is far less bloat. Sure, you can essentially turn it into Vista by enabling all the features, but you only have to enable what you need. I’ve been using Server 2008 as my main workstation for several month now, and I think it’s a surprisingly good OS, one that can suit most anyone’s need as a workstation.

Let’s get started. I assume you have already installed the OS. In my case, I’m using Server 2008 Standard 32-bit.

Disable Server Manager at Login

First things first, let’s disable the two windows that spawn at login. Check the box to disable the Initial Configuration Tasks at login.

And then check the box to disable the Server Manager at login. You can always access it again from the Start menu.

Disable IE Enhanced Security Configuration

As with any Windows Server OS, Internet Explorer is locked down pretty tightly. Before you can download other software (such as drivers and Firefox), you will need to disable IE ESC. Go to Start → Server Manager and then click Configure IE ESC.

Turn it OFF, at least for Administrators.

Grab the Latest Drivers

As with any new Windows installation, be sure to get the latest drivers for your hardware. Just visit the vendor’s website and download them. If the vendor does not offer a driver specific to Server 2008, try installing the latest Vista driver. Chances are very high that it will work.

For my Nvidia graphics card, the Vista drivers worked just fine. Same for my M-Audio sound card.

You can also see if Windows Update has drivers for your hardware.

Disable Ctrl-Alt-Del Requirement at Login

This one is entirely optional. If you prefer having to hit Ctrl-Alt-Del before you log in, then please ignore this step. For those of you who do not want to be bothered with it, follow these steps:

Go to Start → Administrative Tools → Local Security Policy.

In the window that spawns, expand Local Policies (on the left), click Security Options, and then double-click Interactive Login: Do not require CTRL+ALT+DEL.

Switch it to Enabled.

Disable the Shutdown Event Tracker

Along the same lines, let’s remove another little annoyance when you shut down the computer. Since we’re using Server 2008 as a workstation, we have no need to track the purpose of every system reboot or shutdown.

Go to Start → Run, and type gpedit.msc.

This will open the Group Policy Editor. On the left, expand Administrative Templates and click System. On the right, double-click Display Shutdown Event Tracker.

Switch it to Disabled.

Enable Wireless Networking Support

If you use wireless networking equipment, you will need to turn on support for it. If you don’t have any wireless equipment, you can safely skip this step.

Fire up the Server Manager again (Start → Server Manager), In the Features Summary section (near the bottom), click Add Features.

The Add Features Wizard will launch. Scroll to the bottom and turn on Wireless LAN Service.

Performance Options

By default, Windows Server 2008 prioritizes performance to best suit background services. Since this is now a workstation, let’s change it to focus priority on the programs you run.

Go to Start, right-click on Computer, and click Properties. Or, just press the Windows key plus Pause/Break.

The System window will open. Click Advanced System Settings.

The System Properties window will open. Switch to the Advanced tab, and under the Performance section, click Settings.

Switch to the Advanced tab, and adjust for best performance of Programs.

Enable Audio Support

What good is a workstation if you can’t play tunes, right? Let’s turn on the Windows Audio service. Go to Start → Run, and type services.msc.

Scroll down until you find Windows Audio. Switch the startup type to Automatic.

While you’re there, go ahead and Start the service.

Please note that you must have a proper audio driver installed for sound to work.

Turn On the Desktop Experience

Now we’re getting to the fun part. If you want Server 2008 to look and feel like Vista, you must enable the Desktop Experience feature, which adds a number of amenities, including Aero, Windows Media Player, Themes, and photo management tools.

Launch Server Manager, go to Add Features, and select Desktop Experience.

You will have to reboot after the Desktop Experience feature finishes installing.

Enable Themes and Aero

Now that Desktop Experience is installed, let’s get Themes and Aero working. Go to Start → Run, and type services.msc. Scroll down to the Themes service, and set the startup type to Automatic.

Also, go ahead and Start the service while you are there.

To enable Aero, you must first have a proper video driver installed. Then, just right-click anywhere on the Desktop and choose Personalize.

Click Theme, and from the drop-down list, choose the Windows Vista theme.

Voila! Your Server 2008 desktop should now look a little something like this:

Finally, if your hardware supports Aero, make sure it’s enabled by going back to Personalize → Window Color and Appearance. Under Color Scheme, choose Windows Aero if it’s available.

Get .NET 3.0

Some software requires the .NET 3.0 framework. To install it, fire up the Server Manager again and go to Add Features. Select .NET Framework 3.0 Features.

It will prompt you to install a couple of required role services as dependencies. Just follow the prompts to finish installing.

Turn on Windows Search

If you want to enable Windows Search (for searching through the content of your documents and Outlook e-mails), just follow these steps.

Open Server Manager. In the Roles Summary section, click Add Roles.

Click Next to move beyond the Before You Begin page. On the next page, choose File Services.

Continue following the prompts, then select the Windows Search Service. If you want, you may disable the File Server service at the top.

Select any volume that you wish to index, and finish installing.

Turn On SuperFetch

SuperFetch is disabled by default on Server 2008. Turning it on is supposed to make the OS more responsive as it learns your typical usage patterns and behavior. Before you can simply enable it, you must make a couple of registry changes. Go to Start → Run, and type regedit.

Dig down in the hierarchy to the following path:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Memory Management\PrefetchParameters

Make these two changes:

Create a new DWORD Value named EnablePrefetcher and assign it a value of 3

Create a new DWORD Value named EnableSuperfetch and assign it a value of 3

Hexadecimal values:

Now we just need to turn on the Superfetch service. Go to Start → Run and type services.msc. Scroll down to Superfetch and set the startup type to Automatic.

Also, go ahead and Start the service.

This concludes Part I – Basics. Stay tuned for further articles on configuring Windows Server 2008.

Create Your Own Desktop Webapps with Fluid (Mac OS X)

This is neat. How would you like the ability to create your own standalone webapps on your Mac OS X desktop? In other words, what if you could turn any website into a Mac desktop application?

Fluid can do just that.

Download Fluid – requires OS 10.5 or later

In seconds, Fluid can take a given website – such as Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook, eBay, YouTube, or whatever you want – and package it into its own Site Specific Browser (SSB). The SSBs can then run as complete and independent Cocoa applications, complete with their own dock icons and menu bars! Fluid SSBs are based on Safari’s WebKit rendering engine.

Creating the Application

Creating your own SSB is simple: just launch Fluid and fill in the URL and the name of the App you wish to create.

Choose a place to save your new App (defaults to Applications). If you wish to attach a picture for the Dock icon, you may do so. Otherwise, Fluid will grab the site’s favicon.

Note: two good places to hunt for Fluid App icons are here and here.

Here is my new Gmail SSB. Notice the application name and the custom icon in the Dock.

That’s all there is to it. In this example, Gmail runs as its own self-contained browser App on my desktop. Pretty slick.

Run as a Menu Item

With a few extra clicks, you can turn any Fluid App into a Menu item. Just look under the Application name in the menu and click on Convert to MenuExtra SSB.

The App will disappear from the Dock and relaunch as a Menu item.

Because Fluid Apps are based on WebKit, you can even browse sites using Cover Flow. Neat!

Fluid may seem like a novelty, but if there is a website that you tend to leave open most of the time, Fluid can come in handy. Because it’s self-contained, you don’t have to worry about a random browser crash taking down all your open sites.

Speaking of novelty, here’s a link where you can download your very own TipsFor.us desktop application! Yes, that’s right, it will undoubtedly be your least-commonly used Fluid app, perhaps used once before it’s relegated to its rightful place in the Trash!

Fluid itself requires Mac OS 10.5 or greater, but I see no reason why the Apps it creates won’t run on 10.4 or earlier. I’ve upgraded to 10.5, but if someone could verify or disprove me by testing that TipsFor.us App in the above paragraph, I would appreciate it.

iAntiVirus for Mac (Free) – Worth Using?

There has been quite a bit of fuss in the news recently about whether or not Apple recommends anti-virus software for Macs.

My take: I’m not a fanboy of any sort. I am comfortable with multiple operating systems, and I simply prefer to use whatever tool I deem best for any given job. That said, no one can argue that the overwhelming majority of malware writers target the Windows operating system. I also doubt that anyone can convincingly argue that every single Mac needs anti-virus software. Mac OS X is inherently tougher for malware writers to penetrate, but no operating system is perfect. I agree that the best defense against malware is common sense, but lots of people are gullible, and social engineering will find ways around users’ better judgment (or the lack thereof).

As a lover of free software, I choose to run (free) anti-virus software on the Windows-based computers that I manage. I also choose to run anti-virus software on my Mac.

That brings us to iAntiVirus. Many Mac users already know about ClamXav, but iAntiVirus is the other free antivirus product for Mac OS X.

iAntiVirus is developed by PC Tools, the same creators of Spyware Doctor and the AntiVirus Free Edition for Windows (see my review of an earlier version).

First of all, iAntiVirus is indeed FREE (for home and home office use), though it is currently labeled erroneously as shareware on MacUpdate. Just like many free anti-virus products in the Windows world, there is a paid upgrade available that allows for business/commercial usage plus 24/7 support. Otherwise, there is no difference between the free and paid versions.

Requirements: iAntivirus requires an Intel-based Mac running 10.5 or later.

Usage

The main program window of iAntiVirus has a simple elegance to it.

Clicking the Scan my Mac button offers three different scan types: Quick, Normal, and Custom.

Updating

Like any anti-virus program worth its salt, iAntiVirus offers automatic updates. If you want to manually check for definition updates, just click the Smart Update button in the top-right corner.

In the program preferences, you can also set a schedule for both updating and scanning.

Footprint and Scanning

Running a Quick scan on my first-generation Macbook took only 12 minutes. A Normal scan took substantially longer – over two hours. As expected, neither scan detected any infections.

Fortunately, iAntiVirus is very light on resources. Activity Monitor reports that iAntivirus only uses about 10 MB of RAM while silently monitoring in the background. Not bad at all. On my machine, the Finder occupies about 19 MB, while the Dock alone uses just over 6 MB. As I type this, Firefox is consuming about 146 MB. Geez.

During a Normal scan, memory usage crept up to 19.4 MB. Still quite acceptable.

Types of Protection

iAntiVirus offers real-time protection against viruses and other malware.

This is important: iAntiVirus only scans for Mac-specific malware. It does NOT detect any infections specific to Windows. This is both good and bad: It’s GOOD because the program has no need to bloat itself with tons of Windows-specific definitions. It’s BAD because it eliminated one of the main arguments for running anti-virus software on a Mac: to avoid passing on infections to unsuspecting Windows users.

My take: I’m fine with the Mac-specific nature of iAntiVirus. I will gladly accept more system resources on my Mac. Let the Windows anti-virus programs do their job.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I only have two complaints:

  1. You cannot access the program preferences while a scan is running.
  2. I’m having trouble finding any Mac-specific malware. I’m not kidding! I want to test this program.

So, is iAntiVirus worth using? In my opinion, yes. Do you need it right now for fear that you will fall victim to a malware attack? Probably not. But considering that it’s free and uses very few system resources, I see little reason NOT to use it. Despite what many Apple apologists might think, Mac OS X is not infallible, and I welcome another free anti-virus program to the Mac.

Backup and Restore Your Firefox Profile with MozBackup

If you frequently hop around between various Windows-based computers, you might find it handy to keep the same Firefox profile with all your custom settings, extensions, and other info. One easy way to backup and restore your Firefox profile is with MozBackup.

Note: MozBackup also works with Thunderbird, Flock, Sunbird, SeaMonkey, and other Mozilla software.

The MozBackup download comes in both an executable and Zip (standalone) format. I prefer the Zip since you can just pop it onto a Flash drive and carry it with you.

Back Up Your Profile

First, launch the MozBackup wizard. Choose the operation type (Backup versus Restore) and select the desired Mozilla application.

Next, highlight the profile you wish to save. Unless you have created custom profiles, default is the only choice. Be sure to take a look at the Save backup to directory location at the bottom.

At this point you can set a password if you wish. I highly recommend that you do so, especially if you keep saved passwords in your Firefox profile. If those fell into the wrong hands….

Next, choose all the profile details that you want MozBackup to save.

Click Next, and voila! Your backup has been created. Just stick the saved file on a USB flash drive or upload it to some online storage.

Restore Your Profile

Now that your Firefox profile is saved, let’s restore it to another computer, shall we? Launch the MozBackup utility on the new computer, but this time choose Restore a profile as the operation type.

As before, select the desired profile to restore into, and then browse to find your backup file that you created.

Next, select the desired components to restore and tell it to overwrite existing files in the profile.

And away it goes!

And that completes your restore. The next time you launch Firefox, your profile on the new computer should contain all the same extensions, bookmarks, passwords, and other components that you selected.

Bulk Image Processing: How to shrink a bunch of images using iPhoto on OS X

Here’s a real quick tip. Let’s pretend that you took a bunch of nice big photos with your nice digital camera. But your friend wants copies… and you can’t email them because the files are huge! How do you shrink down hundreds of images quickly? Let iPhoto and Mail help…

See the video for this tip in action, or follow these simple steps:

1. Open iPhoto and highlight the images you want
2. Choose to Mail the photos by clicking the Mail icon at the bottom of iPhoto.
3. Choose the size that you want for your new images.
4. When the new Mail message opens up, you could actually send the message at this point (assuming that Mail is configured correctly to send and receive messages), OR you can select all, then drag the message contents over into a desktop folder.
5. You can zip up the contents of the Desktop folder and be done!

Add Watermarks to Photos Online for Free with PicMarkr

Any time you put a photo on the Web, you run a risk that someone will claim it as their own. If you are okay with this, then please ignore this post. However, you can easily add protection against image theft by adding a watermark.

Sure, many photo editing programs (such as Photoshop, GIMP, Picasa) can add watermarks to images, but in a pinch you can just use your browser to upload photos to PicMarkr and easily add a watermark online.

Adding watermarks using PicMarkr is a simple three-step process.

Step One – Upload

First, you need to get your image(s) into PicMarkr. Using their browser upload tool, you can upload up to five pictures at once, with a total file size up to 25 MB.

PicMarkr - Upload
PicMarkr - Upload

If you’re a Flickr user, you can also grant PicMarkr permission to login and grab images directly from your Flickr account. Sweet.

Step Two – Set Watermark

Once PicMarkr has your image(s), it’s time to create and set your watermark. You have three choices here:

  1. Text watermark
  2. Image watermark
  3. Tiled watermark
PicMarkr - watermark types
PicMarkr - watermark types

Text Watermark

To add a text watermark (the default choice), just type your text, choose a preset type, and pick an alignment position.

Here’s a picture of a goat on a car that I took in Greece this past summer. Crazy animal. Note the text watermark at the bottom.

Goat hood ornament

Image Watermark

To add an image watermark, just upload your own logo and choose an alignment position.

I can haz learner's permit?
I can haz license?

Tiled Watermark

The third option is to add a watermark tile. You can choose to stick to text (default), or use a picture as the watermark.

And of course, here’s our crazy goat with a watermark tile.

Bah, Bah, black goat?

Step Three – Save

Now that your watermark is applied, all that is left is to save your new image. You can either download directly to your computer or choose to upload to your Flickr account. That’s it. You’re done.

While PicMarkr is free, I should mention that they offer a Pro version (Windows only at the moment) that has some advanced capabilities, including the ability to replace photos on Flickr.

My only real complaint about PicMarkr is that if you mess up, you cannot simply go back a step and try again. You have to go back and upload the original image again. Frustrating.

Still, it is hard to complain when the free version works very well, and PicMarkr’s free capabilities are impressive. The entire process is fast, the built-in presets are plentiful, and most importantly, it’s easy to use.

Checking to See if Packages are Installed in PHP or Perl

I have this love/hate thing with open source technology. It’s great that it’s free, bugs are openly discussed instead of hidden away, and ultimately I think the open source technologies are more robust.

But here’s what always gets me: the packages and their dependencies.

Perl

At the bash prompt, you can type:
perl -e 'use Some::Package'

If the package is installed, nothing will happen. The one line script executes without complaint. But if you DON’T have that package installed, you’ll get an error like this:
Can't locate Some/Package.pm in @INC (@INC contains: /usr/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.8.8/i386-linux-thread-multi
[...]
/usr/lib/perl5/5.8.8/i386-linux-thread-multi /usr/lib/perl5/5.8.8 .) at -e line 1.
BEGIN failed--compilation aborted at -e line 1.

If that’s the case, you need to find and install that package. With Perl, the way to go is to get familiar with www.cpan.org — yes, it’s a fugly site, but you can search for packages and read up on them. If you want to download them, I recommend using the CPAN command line tool. You run this utility by simply typing cpan on the bash command line. Take the time to understand this utility! It will save you SO MUCH TIME.

PHP

PHP is nowhere near as verbose as Perl when it comes to error messages and debugging; it’s also a bit more mysterious when it comes to its package structure. You can get a lot of information by examining the output of the phpinfo() function. Simply write following script and hit it with a web browser:


<?php phpinfo(); ?>

On the command line, you can use rpm to see if a specific package is installed… however, good luck guessing what the package name is. For example, here you can check the version of the GD graphics library:
rpm -q php-gd
If the package is installed, the result should be something like:
php-gd-5.1.6-20.el5_2.1

You can also have a look in the php module directory. For Linux systems, it’s often here: /usr/lib/php/modules/

Search the File System

If you’re still frustrated, you can search the file system for the file — modules are FILES… they live SOMEWHERE. In Linux, you can use the find command:
find /path/to/start/search -name 'name_of_file'
E.g. to search for myfile.txt in the current directory or beneath, you’d type this:

find . -name myfile.txt

All the Linux file name metacharacters are valid, e.g. “*.txt” to search for all text files. The path can also be specified as any valid pathname, e.g. “~/” to refer to the current user’s home directory.

It’s a bit messy in there, but hopefully this helps you evaluate a system to see if your scripts or pages will actually work!