The Problem with Off-Shoring

I work in information technology, providing outsourced IT management and system administration services. Sometimes, as part of my job, I must call on technical support from vendors of hardware and software, such as Dell, HP, Microsoft, and Intuit.
In the last few years, many companies have decided to save money by off-shoring their tech support call centers. While I am a big fan of outsourcing, (mostly because without outsourcing, I’d be out of a job), off-shoring is a different story. My call to Microsoft Technical Support this morning underscores this:
MS: Thank you for calling Microsoft Technical Support. What product do you need assistance with?
Me: Office 2003 Basic Edition
MS: Can I get your first and last name please?
Me: First name is “Peter,” last name is Nikolaidis, “n-i-k-o-l-a-i-d-i-s. ”
MS: Thank you mister “Neekolidees.” Is this the first time you have called Microsoft Technical Support?
Me: No.
MS: Can I have the case number?
Me: I don’t have a case number, this is a new issue.
MS: Okay, can I have the case number so I can look up the issue?
Me: No, this is a new issue.
MS: Okay… if I can have the case number I can look up the issue.
Me: I have NO case number. This is a NEW issue. You asked if I have called you before, and I have, but this is a new issue.
MS: Okay… Sir can I please have the product ID of the product you are using
Me: [Braces for impact] it’s 12345-OEM-67891-01112.
FOR i IN 1 TO 3

MS: Okay Mister Neekolidees, since you gave me a product ID number that has the letters O-E-M in it, you can contact the vendor who sold you the computer for technical support.

Me: I already spoke with Dell and they cannot help me.

MS: Are you having a problem with installation?
Me: [Speaking plainly and clearly, on a good quality telephone connection] No.
MS: Okay Mister Neekolidees, since you are having a problem with installation, I will give you a free incident so that we can get your problem resolved.
Me: … Thank you…

What Do You Want for Christmas?

It\’s that time of year again, and I figured I\’d save everyone who is thinking about getting me a present the trouble. No, not the trouble of getting me a gift. Of course I want gifts! No, I will save you the trouble of thinking of what to get me, you silly person!
Here are some great suggestions that I’m sure I would like:

  • A case for my iPod (30GB, black) which allows me to still sync it, but not worry about it being scratched.
  • A gift certificate to Borders or
  • DVDs (widescreen editions always):
    • Superman Returns
    • Superman II (the Richard Donner Cut)
    • X-Men 3: The Last Stand
  • Books:
  • An iPod dock of some sort that includes speakers.
  • A ViewSonic Viewdock Monitor.
  • A MacBook, MacBook Pro, or Mac Pro. Hey, if you don’t ask…
  • Jox Sox! These are great athletic socks which let my smelly, sweaty feet breathe! I have several pairs of the ped size, but could use some larger ones for use with
  • Slippers.

Okay, scratch the slippers.

How I Cut Myself on Edgy Eft's Bleeding Edge (Twice)

As a loyal Ubuntu user, I was excited when Ubuntu 6.10 Edgy Eft was released last week. I downloaded my ISO via BitTorrent to have available for any new installs, but planned on upgrading my laptop and desktop machines via these four commands at the terminal:
sed -i 's/dapper/edgy/g'/etc/apt/sources.list
apt-get update
apt-get upgrade
apt-get dist-upgrade

After getting the list of packages to upgrade, I found that a few packages, most notably Beagle, Drivel, Tomboy Notes, and a few Python packages, were held back, blocking my upgrade. I knew that the apps were included in the new release, so I figured maybe they needed to be removed because they weren't in the main repository or some such. Given that, I uninstalled them and re-ran the upgrade commands. The upgrade ran fairly smoothly for several hours as it downloaded hundreds of megabytes of files. While the upgrade was running in the background, I continued to work on my system. The first thing I noticed was some cosmetic changes. The Kate editor had a new splash screen, which I noticed when I used it to edit some files. Thunderbird had a new default font, as did some system menues. After switching to a blank desktop, I realized that the background and default theme had been updated. I thought all of these were pretty cool, as they happened transparently while I was working without so much as a hiccup.
When the upgrade was complete, I was prompted to reboot. I happily rebooted the system.
That's when it got ugly.
Somehow, despite Dapper and Edgy being able to recognize my display and configure it properly (Dapper when booting from CD or the drive, Edgy when booting from the CD), it choked when trying to launch X11. I looked over the diagnostic info in the log, but after a few failed attempts to edit the xorg.conf file to a state of happiness, I decided to back up my home directory and do a clean install of Edgy from CD.
In addition to my ext3 and swap partitions, I have an NTFS and FAT32 partition on this machine. I backed up my home directory to the FAT32 partition, then booted from the Edgy CD and selected the options to install over the now-corrupted Dapper to Edgy upgrade. The clean installation went fairly quickly, but I was not able to find the copy of my home directory that I had backed up!
I booted into Windows and couldn't find the files there either. I ran CHKDSK on the FAT32 partition, which found and corrected errors, but didn't find my files. Deciding that there wasn't anything critical there (well, hoping so, anyway) I booted back into Edgy to see what was new with this release.
That's when I got my next surprise. Suddenly it would not mount my FAT32 or NTFS partitions. The partitions simply did not show up. At this point I was getting concerned that I was having hardware problems, so I ran SpinRite on the drive. It found no problems, but my data didn't come back either. Satisfied that the drive was okay, I booted into Edgy again.
This time, after seeing the Ubuntu splash screen momentarily, the whole display went black, except for a blinking cursor in the upper left corner of the screen. I waited for a couple of minutes, and after no disk activity and no login prompt, cold-booted the system. The same thing happened again. Not sure exactly where the machine was in the boot process when it hung, I pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del to see what happened. To my surprise, the Gnome login prompt popped up!
Deciding that this was simply too much weirdness for now, I pulled my 6.06 LTS CD off the shelf, booted from it, and kissed Edgy goodbye for now, as I put Dapper back on my laptop. I'm a little disappointed, because some of the enhancements I saw during the brief time I was in Edgy looked nice, but stability is the main reason I wanted to run Linux in the first place, and I decided Dapper's pretty stable, so I'm going back to Ubuntu 6.06 LTS Dapper Drake for now, at least on my laptop. I'll write again shortly with an update of how the upgrade went on my two desktops at the office.
My X11 configuration was also trashed on my Dell Dimension 2400 after attempting an in-place upgrade over my previous Dapper installation. Beware!

Why the Microsoft POP3 Connector for Exchange is a Piece of Junk

I’ve used the POP3 Connector for Exchange which comes with Small Business Server since SBS version 4.0 (NT 4, Exchange 5.0). The main limitation I’ve always bumped into was the fact that the POP Connector will check mail only as frequently as every 15 minutes.
While this is normally acceptable, if a user is anxiously awaiting an email, or, as has frequently happened to me, you’re on the phone with someone and they email you a file so you can collaborate with them on it, waiting up to 15 minutes for the file can be a real time-waster.
The second issue, which I’ve never personally cared about, was the inability to leave an email which was downloaded on the server for a period of time. Many of my clients do this as a backup option (in case something gets corrupted or deleted after being downloaded), or as a poor substitute for IMAP, to allow them to receive their mail on multiple computers. Of course, given that they have an Exchange server, this is relatively pointless, but I digress.
Last week, I found the main reason why the POP Connector for Microsoft Exchange should be avoided at all costs. It is summarized in the following Microsoft Knowledgebase article:


When the Microsoft Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 Connector for POP3 Mailboxes component downloads e-mail messages from an Internet Service Provider (ISP) all the following symptoms may occur:

? E-mail messages that are downloaded by the SBS 2003 Connector for POP3 Mailboxes are not successfully delivered to the intended recipients.
? The Microsoft Exchange 2003 Server-based computer removes the e-mail messages that it was not able to deliver.
? The senders of these e-mail messages do not receive non-delivery reports from the Exchange 2003 Server-based computer as they typically do if their e-mail messages do not reach the intended recipients.

To summarize, the POP Connector gets the message, determines that it doesn’t know what to do with the message, and silently throws it away.
Without any warning to the user. Or the server administrator. Or the sender of the original message.
Who was the rocket scientist who came up with this plan of action?!
I’ve been using IGetMail from the folks at Lockstep. It costs $69, and has a free trial. The program allows you to customize the polling schedule to your liking (including poll freqencies of less than every 15 minutes!). It also has more flexible handling of emails than the built in POP Connector, and can be configured to simply delete emails that are corrupted on the server. This feature has saved my clients a lot of troubleshooting time, especially in cases when certain Asian-language spam or a corrupted attachment has managed to really confuse the client and server, which would have caused a client to be unable to receive any email in the past.
If you’re using POP to pull your mail down to an Exchange server, I highly recommend IGetMail as an alternative to the built in POP Connector.

Is anyone else experiencing multiple hard drive failures lately?

In the last month, I’ve had the following run-ins with failing hard drives:

  • A local credit union had two teller stations in different offices die, and a third started to act up, but running SpinRite, chkdsk, and defrag seems to have fixed it.
  • A local law office lost a drive in their server, as well as an external drive attached to their server. Today, about two weeks later, one of the lawyer’s workstation drives died as well.
  • A client’s home PC had a drive failure.
  • A client’s main Citrix server lost not one, but two drives in its RAID array.

All of these happened in separate towns (Bethel, Randolph, Rochester,? Rutland, and Woodstock, Vermont), in Dell computers, running a mix Maxtor, Seagate, and Western Digital hard drives. I’m no stranger to hard drive failures, but having so many fail all in such a short timeframe seems a bit odd. Anyone else experiencing this sort of behavior lately? If so, leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

How to Use Email, Part 4(b): How NOT to Reply to an Email Message – Top Posting

If you don’t know what top-posting is, it is when you reply to someone’s email, and your response comes before the message to which you are replying.
This practice was popularized by Microsoft in their Outlook and Outlook Express email programs, whose default behavior is to include replies above the original message.
Allow me to demonstrate with an example I saw recently:

A: No.
Should I put my response to emails in the top of my reply?

There you have it. Unfortunately, Microsoft Outlook, which is probably the most popular email client in the world, defaults to this setting. Obviously this is bad because if anyone wants to jump in to an existing conversation, s/he must scroll down to the first message (which is now conveniently located at the bottom of the email), read down to the bottom of this message, scroll back up to find the top of the immediately preceeding message, scroll down to read it, scroll back up to read the preceeding message, etc. Confusing, time-consuming, and, depending on your client, difficult to do.So please, make an effort and put your replies where they belong: after the thing you’re replying to.

How I Moved my Firefox and Thunderbird Settings from Windows to Mac OS X

I love Firefox and Thunderbird. One of my favorite features of both is that they are available on the three platforms that I use on a daily basis: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
The hardest part in moving your profiles from Windows to Mac (or Mac to Windows) is finding them in the first place. On Windows, I found my Firefox in C:\Documents and Settings\[username]\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles
where [username] would be your username.
I located my Thunderbird profile in C:\Documents and Settings\[username]\Local Settings\Application Data\Thunderbird\Profiles.
Since I have a network, and Windows shares its system drives by default, the easiest way for me to connect the two systems to transfer the files was from my Mac. In Finder, I pressed Command-k and entered the path to my Windows machine’s hard drive, like so:
where [computername] is the name of my PC. I was prompted for my Windows username and password, and then my Windows computer’s hard drive showed up on the desktop. From there it was a matter of just drilling down into the folders listed above to the Profiles directory.
Then, on the Mac, I had to locate the appropriate preferences folders. I opened my hard drive, then clicked on my username from the icon bar at the left. From there, I opened Library, Application Support, FireFox, Profiles. There I saw a profile named, in my case, ijawgk1.default. On Windows, the folder was named 9u4pqopm.default. The names are not important. What is important, is that you copy the contents of this folder on Windows into the folder on the Mac. Do not copy the whole folder – open the folder under your Profiles folder, select all files and folders underneath, and then copy all of them to the appropriate folder on the Mac. Restart Firefox or Thunderbird, and voila! You should see all of your customized settings, bookmarks, addresses, extensions, etc. on your Mac.
If you want to move your profile from Mac to Windows, simply reverse the copy, copying the contents of the profile from the Mac to Windows.
If you’re using Linux, you can do the same thing. You just need to know that your profiles are located in ~/.mozilla/firefox and ~/.mozilla-thunderbird.

How I Installed Zabbix 1.1 on Ubuntu 6.06

After reading about Zabbix again in Linux Server Hacks, Vol. 2 I decided to take another stab at installing it. I had given it a shot a few months ago on an older Fedora box, and because of dependancy hell, gave up without getting it installed. So I figured I’d try again on my Ubuntu box.
The installation instructions on the Zabbix web site worked, but only after I installed some pre-requisites. Assuming you don’t yet have Apache2, PHP, and MySQL installed (which I did), you’d do the following:

sudo apt-get install apache2 php5 mysql-server mysql-common mysql-client

But we’re not quite ready to configure Zabbix yet. These are the obvious re-requisites. The ones that you can’t find so easily with the error messages you get back from running the configure command are installed with the following:

sudo apt-get install libsnmp9-dev net-snmp-devel libc6-dev libmysqlclient12-dev

These include libraries needed for snmp and MySQL connectivity. Once I put these in place, I was able to configure Zabbix with the following command:

/configure --enable-server --with-mysql --with-net-snmp