Making use of HomeGroups in Windows7

Over the weekend, I was trying to setup HomeGroups for a Windows7-only network, for a SOHO network in Vancouver. The steps appear to be straightforward but getting it to work with printing was quite a different story.

One desktop runs the Windows 7 64bit Professional edition with a locally attached Brother MFC printer. This desktop PC will act as the print server for the other PCs on this SOHO LAN. To do this, I set the membership for this desktop to a Home network and walked through the wizard to assign an easy to remember password. I went to the advanced network configuration and ensured file and printer sharing was enabled, and turned off prompts for passwords where access to shared resource is concerned.

On another wireless laptop, we have a laptop running the 32-bit edition of Windows7 Professional. I joined the laptop to the existing Homegroup we have setup on the desktop, typed in the same password, and the wizard fails. Laptop is not able to connect. I turned off Windows firewall on both deskop and laptop but that didn’t work either.

After redoing the network settings for Homegroups multiple times, I finally fixed it by disabling Symantec Endpoint on the laptop and Windows Security Essential on the desktop. Who would have thought of that? I was able to join the Homegroup now and am able to share files. Printing is still not quite working and I think it may be be related to 64bit printer driver and I’ll get this resolved soon enough.

The setup was frustrating and obviously we will need to enable the Symantec Endpoint and Windows Security Essentials eventually. I’ll elaborate on configurations in future posts as soon as I get it stable. If you have any suggesstions in getting it to work, comments are appreciated.

How to run network data cable correctly?

I just came back from a support call on Saturday to repair a burnt network cable at a client site. At first I wasn’t sure what the user meant when she said cable was burnt and I felt bad for her because she was without computer access for 2 days.

One of our technical specialists was dispatched onsite to take a look. He started trying to fix the cable by taping loose wires to the wall. This worked temporarily for a day but on the next day user was down again. He came back and cut the defective wire through the flooring down to the basement but didn’t have any tools to finish the job. He went with the business owner to a neighborhood hardware store and they purchased RJ45 crimpers, pliers, and wall plates to plug in patch cable to. However, they purchased the wrong pieces and instead got parts for RJ11 – phones. They called it a day and left the cut cables dangling in the basement for Monday.

Fortunately, NickA had all the cabling tools needed to finish the job. We have the crimpers, ends, cables, and line testers. We went in on the weekend to complete the job. We did have to go back to the hardware store with the business owner to return the RJ11 wall plate and replace that with CAT5E RJ45. After that, I was done in a few minutes, tested network connectivity, and everyone was happy we didn’t spend the weekend clearing mouse droppings in the basement where the cable was pulled.

Some lessons learned include 1) having the appropriate tools for the job, and 2) keep constant communications open to update sponsors.

Providing IT support thru your smartphone

One thing that I am working on is the ability to do more work from my smartphone. A lot of IT professionals are constantly on the move and are finding less time in front of a desktop computer. I am consistenly away from my desk and find that I never get much done whenever me and my PC are separated. The one device I do have attached to my hip (literally) is my smartphone. Now it allows me to check emails, instant message, update social media stats, open some attachments, surf the net, take pictures/videos, and make phone calls. I find that I still cannot run simple diagnostics necessary to improve support reponse. Diagnostics like ping tests on local servers, or force a restart remotely of some servers, from my smartphone. I am even working on getting remote access or remote control capability to client sites. This is a challenge and if I can get these 3 helper tools on my smartphone, I’ll be able to extend the business value we provide to our clients by providing faster response.

I have designed a web application that allows me to do all this from my smartphone and from inside the clients’ LAN. All our clients run some form of intranet web server and my web application runs on IIS, ASPX dot net framework, and C#. It uses all the built-in functions available with dot net and is easy to port to each client site because its modular (I used Visual Web Developer 2008 Express Edition). I’ll post more details on the code and how it works at a later date so stay tuned.

8 scripts to help automate repetitive monthly systems maintenance tasks

I know that every system administrator’s job is hard enough so any tool that makes our jobs easier provides value to the business. Instead of spending time on iterative and repetitive tasks, free up your time and put the savings by being proactive. This provides more value for the business.
Here are my top 5 list of scriptable tasks. I use a combination of vbscript, batch script, and free smtp mailer like postie.

1) Daily diskspace checker.
This is my favorite and is done by creating a batch script that returns the result of a DIR command to an output text file. This text file is comma-delimited and is appended to each time the script is run. This text file as input to a chart and emailed to a distribution list. The input text file is read by a Vbscript and formatted into the chart. Here is more information on this
A second vbscript is used to read another input text file that has a list of servers, disk partitions, disk threshold before an alert is triggered, and a list of emails to send the alert out to.
These two vbscripts allow you to trend on disk growth for proactive management and prevents users from finding out about low disk issues before you do.

2) Daily ping checker.
This is similar to #1 and uses an input text file that includes systems to ping, their IP addresses, who to alert, and a custom message to include in the email body. A vbscript is used to call this input text file and a free smtp mailer like postie to send the alerts.

3) Daily backup checker.
This is similar to #2 and uses combination of a text input file and a vbscript that calls it. The input text file includes a path to the backup logs for that server. It works well for systems that use built-in Windows backup software NTBACKUP.

4) Weekly disk defragment report.
Some of our clients like to see weekly disk defragmentation report of file servers and SQL servers. Using the built-in defrag.exe in a batch script allows us to output the results to a text file and then emailed over to a distribution group.

5) Weekly printer backup.
Another client adds printers to a Terminal server on a consistent basis which necessitated weekly backups. We use the MS PrintMigrator software in a batch script to automated printer backups to nearline. The results are emailed to a distribution group.
6) Monthly restarts.
There is no excuse for not automating this. Windows servers need patches every second Tuesday of the month and requires a restart after that. Putting the servers in a batch script and using the PS Tool psshutdown.exe allows for a forced reboot. This batch script can then be scheduled outside of business hours.

7) Monthly uptime report.
After restarts and patches are applied, it is important to check that they are back online by running the ping checker in #2. I also have an uptime batch script that uses the Windows built-in uptime.exe utility with /s parameter to report on the history of restarts. It shows any BSOD during the month and this is reported via email to a distribution group automatically.

8.) Monthly application service checker.
After a server patch and restart, its important to ensure user and business applications are running. This can be onerous and fortunately, can easily be scripted. Its trivial to check that IIS and web services are up for web seervers and that MS SQL services are up for SQL servers. A separate report is generated and can be sent to business owners or sponsors to tell them their applications are all running after systems maintenance.

If you need some samples of these scripts, please comment here and I can follow up.

An excellent backup strategy for small businesses by using BackupExec and Drobo FS

We have just finished a project to automate backups. The goal was to reduce backup operator errors by ensuring tape swaps are removed from day-to-day operations. Other improvements were introduced and addressed a number of other issues b
ut this
was the main goal. A lot of other small-to-medium companies are in this predicament where no full-time staff exists to take care of daily backups. This project successfully addressed this.
We purchased a Drobo FS network-attached storage (NAS) appliance with enough terabytes of capacity to last us over 2-4 weeks of daily incremental backups. Running ‘incremental’ was important because ‘full’ backup wouldn’t last for more that a week. At the end of the 2 weeks, we rotate to Full tape backups which requires a backup operator to come in and swap tapes. At the same time, an automated process runs to clear out the contents of the NAS appliance preparing it for the next incremental set. To ensure that the backup operators don’t forget to swap tapes, a windows scheduled task sends an email alert reminding them. A recurring Outlook calendar entry is also in place to remind the backup operat
ors every two weeks.
Using BackupExec as the backup software works well with tape and nearline rotation. I use the canned Grandfather-Father-Scheme (GFS) backup policy and simply customize that to do run incrementals daily for 2 weeks and a full tape backup on the second Friday of the 2 week period. I use the GFS rule that let’s the full tape backup win over the nearline backup on Fridays by specifying that it wins on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month. Sounds confusing? Contact me for more information on the setup.
In addition to running GFS backups, I have also set up the BackupExec Intelligent Disaster Recovery (IDR) backups during monthly maintenance work. The IDR backups run on Saturday after regular backups complete and it writes it to the Drobo FS.
We’ll use these IDR backups for Disaster Recovery but that’s another discussion.