Older blog entries for logic (starting at number 162)

Dataflo or Datanoflo?

So, the day after I post a blog entry about being forced to switch to Comcast because of the lackluster service I've received with Dataflo, I have another rather significant service outage. There appeared to be problems last night, although I was having a hard time pinning the issue on Dataflo then. However, they definitely made a mid-day routing change today; at 12:34, all of a sudden, my backup MX starts receiving email for everything (the backup MX, in this case, is my router, which usually sees nothing but spam all day), and traceroutes to the static IP block they've assigned me are dropped on the floor the moment Cogent hands off to Dataflo.


It's not like I'm asking for a lot here. I need a service that stays up, and I'm paying a premium for that. That premium ought to include at least a bit of special attention to making sure the services provided to me are working when a major change is made, and perhaps major changes shouldn't be done in the middle of the workday, in the middle of the week, without any prior notification to the customer base of a potential outage. Screw the SLA; I shouldn't need an SLA to hold over their heads. What I really need is a service that stays up, with planned maintenance windows and some degree of customer notification.

I have no idea why I think Comcast will be any better, but at least they're half the price (actually, a third of the price, if you consider what my renewal contract pricing stated). In the event I get lousy service, at least I won't be crying about the money I'm wasting.

Syndicated 2006-04-04 14:52:00 from esm

I'm Comcastic!

Ugh. I finally bit the bullet, and had Comcast "Workplace" service installed to replace the flakey fixed-point wireless service I've been fighting with for the past two years. To be fair, I should qualify that: my "last mile" link (between my rooftop transmitter and the tower) has been rock solid. The problem has always been mid-day routing and configuration changes on the part of the provider, which have knocked me offline anywhere from a few minutes now and then, to one incident that had me offline for the better part of a day. At this price and service level, that's completely unacceptable. So, since I can't get service from my preferred vendor here due to a complete lack of DSL availability in my area, I'm stuck with the local cable company: Comcast.

So, first impressions (note that I haven't moved ANY services to this yet, until I get a feel for how this will work): 6Mbps download speeds are unbelievably fun. :-) The 768kbps upload speed may end up being a bit of a hindrance; most of my traffic is SMTP, but I do receive a fair bit of HTTP traffic too, and that's where that upload bottleneck is going to suck (specifically, both I and Erica maintain pretty large photo galleries that seem to get a bit of traffic, and I'll often host larger items for people for limited times). But, we'll have no idea how that'll go until I bite the bullet and cut stuff over; I'm hoping I can run fairly well off of both links for a while, with plenty of time for DNS updates to propagate.

Ugh. I remember how much I hate renumbering now.

Syndicated 2006-04-03 11:29:00 from esm

Fedora Core 5

My initial impressions: more solid than I thought this release was going to be, given how much has changed. My biggest complaint so far: they upgraded OpenSSL to a new major version without providing a compat release for those of us upgrading. All we needed was an equivilent to the already-existing openssl097a package, which does nothing but package up libssl.so.5 and libcrypto.so.5, and upgrading would have been smooth as silk for me on one machine. Instead, I'm stuck rebuilding packages that I should have been able to leave alone until later. Bah.

More later when I've had a little more time to play with it. Playing with it on a desktop machine is proving difficult, as the only "play" machine I have right now running Fedora Core hangs the console whenever I fire up X. (Not too surprising, that machine is a bit of a hodgepodge of hardware.)

Syndicated 2006-03-30 20:50:00 from esm

Treo 650

The action with the WRX was captured beautifully with my new toy: a Treo 650. It's a combination PDA and cellular phone that runs PalmOS, and with the data service I picked up with the package, the built-in web browser and email client are actually proving to be fairly handy. Definitely a big step up from the BlackBerry I had while I was at my previous job; the screen and form factor are a huge leap forward, and having a camera built-in (albeit pretty crappy) is a cute gimmicky toy. Battery life is at least as good too (actually, it looks like it's going to be quite a bit better; I should get two or three days out of a charge with my normal usage, which is pretty excessive compared to an average user). Phone and data service coverage with Sprint seems to be pretty good so far, and the data service is a LOT faster than the Nextel service I had the BlackBerry connected to. The SD media slot means this thing can also serve as a portable MP3/OGG/media player too; 2G of audio storage ain't bad. I can bolt the thing up to my desktop via bluetooth and infrared as well, which means one less cable to muck with. I'm pretty happy with it so far. :-)

Syndicated 2006-01-01 02:27:00 from esm


So, in my new role, I'll be responsible for the shared administration of a rather large Gentoo deployment. So, in the spirit of eating your own dogfood, I'm loading my new company-issued laptop with Gentoo Linux.

First impression: I feel like I'm back in 1994. Really. Oh, the package management is generally pretty cooked; in fact, I'm really quite impressed with how they're handling a generally nebulous thing (from-source package generation) in a pretty consistant manner. I'm trying to imagine building Fedora from source RPMs, and the idea gives me the willies; they have the build dependancies handled pretty well. No, my problem is the same problem I have with Debian: choice is good, but too much choice is a PITA. You can infer from this that I disagree with the Perl axiom of "more than one way to do it"; all that means is that the language (or in this case, distribution) maintainer didn't have the intestinal fortitude to make a decision, and left the problem of bikeshed arguments to the users. It's actually worse than that: on their own, a lot of the little variances don't matter, but get enough of them together, and you have a maintenance nightmare.

This problem is compounded by the community belief that customization at all levels (specifically at the buildchain level) is a good thing. At the end of the day, you have a distribution where you are truly on your own from a support perspective in many cases. Not a big deal for an operating system targetting hackers and tweakers (in fact, I'll probably have a ball with it on my laptop), but when I put my management hat on, the idea of using this in production frightens me; you're essentially locking yourself into using senior-level talent to manage your infrastructure, and hiring junior talent that can grow into the position starts becoming less and less attractive. Not bad for me, but bad for the bottom line.

I expect I'm expounding on arguments that have been had over and over in the Gentoo community over the years, so this is more of a first-impression kind of vent. I'll skip on discussing the apparent lack of development and "stable" tracks for general deployment, and a few other similar things I've noticed missing from the "process" around the distribution, because they're all fundamentally part of the same issue: the Gentoo community appears to strongly appeal to the hacker/tweaker, which defines the community's behavior from a packaging and ongoing maintenance perspective.

So, Slackware for smarter people. :-)

Syndicated 2005-12-15 10:11:00 from esm


After being so happy about getting the framerate up a bit last night, I decided to finally get around to updating the BIOS to the last version issued by ECS (it's a K7VZA v1.0 motherboard, if anyone's curious). Seeing as it's been out since 2000, I figured, "What could possibly go wrong?"

I ended up with a brick.

Enter the Willem EPROM burner I bought a few months back for flashing ECU chips for Erica's Laser. I finally set up a machine for doing nothing but burner duty, and pulled the image off the chip. As suspected, it was corrupt, so I tried writing the image out again with the burner...no dice, it would fail after a random number of sectors. After a LOT of searching, I turned up a bit of information: first, BIOS chips (in this case, an ASD AE29F2008) seem to have a defence mechanism against just blatting a new image onto them, and you need to disable this before you can write your image (which is the real "magic" of the flash update software that motherboard manufacturers issue you). Second, version 0.97ja of the Willem software (the most recent version available) can't actually disable it; you have to backdate your version to 0.97g. Tried out the older version, clicked the button that magically appeared to disable software protection, and viola: the image burned perfectly.

Shouting triumphantly (and waking Erica up, doh!), I rushed downstairs with my freshly flashed BIOS, plugged it in, powered the machine back up, and...BEEEEEEEEEEEP*crackle*. Same thing, just powered down. Dammit. Okay, back upstairs, downloaded and burned the older version that we were running before, ran back down, plugged it in, powered it up, and all was well again. I have no idea why the new image isn't working, but I'm perfectly happy with the BIOS revision I have now, thankyouverymuch. :-)

I also took a second to slap another 30GB drive I had lying around into it for my ogg collection and various other multimedia goodies for sharing with the rest of the machines here. A quick fdisk and pvcreate /dev/hdd1 (etc), and I think I'm about ready to call it a night.

So, on the upside, I now have a decent station to burn chips at; this eliminates the last of my reasons for waffling on getting a new chip made for the Laser, so I'll probably play with that next.

Syndicated 2005-12-06 22:51:00 from esm

Radeon 7000/VE

I never thought I'd be happy to see 114 frames per second out of glxgears, but that's double what I was getting before, so I claim success. I suspect if I cranked the resolution down from 1600x1200 to something a little smaller, or dropped the color depth down to 16bpp, I'd get a little better performance, but frankly, I'm not really willing to sacrifice either. Call me spoiled. ;-)

For the curious: lspci identifies my card as a Radeon RV100 QY (Radeon 7000/VE), which is apparently some bastard child of the Radeon 7000 lineup that has a bad time with DRI. It also has the fact that it's a PCI card working against it, but hey, at least it's got 128MB of painfully-slow-to-access video memory onboard. :-) Two initial problems cropped up: first, I had an MTRR conflict which required manual intervention to clear up (I found a thread over at Rage3D.com that put me onto a solution for that), and second, DRI is disabled on the Fedora build of Xorg, and needs to be explicitly re-enabled for the Radeon 7000/VE (add Options "DRI" to the Device section of xorg.conf). Basic desktop behavior is a bit quicker now, and video playback is actually doable now, so it's a good place to stop for the night, but this is truly terrible performance compared to what I was expecting.

Syndicated 2005-12-06 00:52:00 from esm


The musical and martial arts worlds have a history long enough to learn something from when thinking about new (which is a relative term, of course) fields of study. Something they both got right was the idea of "practice"; repetition of basic tasks so as to both reinforce the basics, and to prevent the student from "practicing" on the job (how embarassing to deliver that B as a b flat during your on-stage solo).

Let's apply that to the IT world. If you're a programmer, when is the last time you sat down and worked through some of the basics in your current development tool of choice? Written a b-tree implementation from scratch lately, complete with sorting and searching? How about just a basic list or queue? If you're a systems administrator, when is the last time you tried working through a simulated emergency, so that you're better prepared for the next fire you have to put out on the job? How quickly could you get the company's website back up if the database server needed a major component replacement? How about if that component was the complete disk array?

I wish this was my idea, of course, but I'm really just re-telling an excellent concept from Dave Thomas, one of the fellows who wrote The Pragmatic Programmer (I talked about it a long time ago over on Advogato back when I originally read it; if you haven't ever picked it up, I highly recommend it). He coined the term Code Kata in a bow to the Japanese concept of (Kata) in the martial arts. Literally "form", it could more practically be called "practice"; most forms of martial arts have a series of pre-determined forms, or Kata, that the student memorizes and exercises until they can be performed essentially from muscle memory.

Similarly, Dave Thomas suggests 21 Code Kata for programmers to tackle during the practice sessions he thinks we're all missing out on. I've had a rudimentary form of this that I've tackled over time, but that was targetted mainly at the acquisition of new skills, not at practicing existing skills. So, I decided to start working on at least a few of these as time permits; having just started, it's amazing the amount of knowledge from back in my university days is still there (and how much trouble I seem to be having recovering it ;-)).

Practice is good.

Syndicated 2005-12-05 16:09:00 from esm

Outsourcing administration?

I read an excellent essay recently which discussed the fallacy that outsourcing programmers was akin to outsourcing manufacturing capabilities; he convincingly makes the argument that programming, unlike manufacturing, is an iterative design process. Just like you'd never see a major automotive manufacturer outsource it's design team, because design is their core competancy, outsourcing your programming talent (assuming software is your business) would similarly cripple your competitive advantage. His discussion got me thinking about my own chosen profession (systems administration, in case anyone reading this in the past might have mistaken me for one of those hippy geek programmers ;-)). Does his argument apply to systems administration and management, or do we have a job function that could be done from an operations manual?

Systems administration consists of a number of well-defined roles, combined with a lot of day-to-day vagueness. The well-defined stuff is obvious:

  • Keep the hardware running, and schedule fix/replace work as neccesary.
  • Monitor operating system and hardware resource usage, and notify application owners/schedule upgrades as necessary.
  • Schedule operating system (and application, if that's in your job description too) patching and regular maintenance.
  • Keep up-to-date with the current "state of the art" in systems administration "best practices" and software/hardware revisions.

I could go on a bit longer, but you get the idea. Keep things running, schedule stuff that helps keep it running, and fix stuff when it breaks. Simple, right? So outsourcing sounds, at this point, like it's a good idea. Bring it on: remote facilities and eyes-and-hands services cover 90% of that, and consulting resources can probably manage the remaining work, right?

This is where I bring up that second part of the job: the day-to-day vagueness. It includes things like:

  • Help a windows developer become acclimated to programming on UNIX (or, alternatively, commisserate with the poor UNIX programmer forced to write in VBScript all day long). Explain select() to someone whose most complicated previous program has been an interface mockup in MS Access.
  • Help project management understand why the great idea they had for streamlining their project plan will actually extend the deadline, because it doesn't take into account an implementation detail that they didn't know about, such as growing SAN capacity or adding switches.
  • Serve as a liason between the technology staff and management. Explain that their carefully crafted budget from last year was exceeded by 150%, not because of "out of control geeks", but because management didn't actually ask the geeks how much their projects would cost.
  • Write code, because automation gives you more time to write blog entries about how you're automating yourself out of a job.
  • Convince a vendor that, yes Virginia, there really is a bug in your product. Provide truss/strace/etc. output as necessary. Step through it with a debugger if you have to, or supply the line number of the "encrypted" perl code they supplied you with that contains the bug.
  • Figure out why a particular vendor-supplied operating system patch didn't apply to one machine out of fifty, in fifteen minutes, because that's how long your maintenance window is. Roll back all fifty machines if you can't figure it out.
  • Sit in every meeting for a particular project, not because you have anything to contribute to any of them, but because of that one meeting where someone will suggest something utterly impossible, from a technical perspective, and you need to be there to save yourself and your team from the job of making it happen.

I could go on forever with this part. The primary role of a System Administrator, in my mind, is not to do the day-to-day technical work; management is right, all of that can be outsourced. What they can't outsource is the role of someone you can turn to and ask "does this make sense, technically?" Just like automotive design will never be outsourced, systems and network design can't be outsourced without terrible consequences. Envision a case of a large company who has outsourced all of their administrative talent. Who is making the design decisions for the network? Do you outsource that, or does management take on the role? If you outsource it, who represents the designers in new deployments? Who do you turn to when you have questions about how one system interacts with another? How do you fill in gaps in your staff's technical knowledge without technical leaders to turn to?

Make no mistake, though: this argument demands that systems administrators grow into technical leaders. We need to be architects, designers, mentors, programmers, project managers, janitors, and free-thinkers; we need to have a breadth of expertise that a specialist simply cannot bring to the table. Someone who wants to take a class and be "certified" as a "Linux Guru" doesn't have much of a future in this business (or at least, not at this pay grade) because that role can be handed off to anyone who can read an operations manual. Want to keep your fat paycheck? Recognize the areas that can't be outsourced, and excel at them. If there's a "Learn X in 24 Hours" book, it's a pretty good bet that X isn't what you should be exclusively concentrating on.

I started writing this not sure where I'd end up at the end; I half-expected to end up making the argument that I'm not necessary, but that would only be half-right. Only those of us who can't provide technical leadership and handle the "undefinables" of the job are unnecessary. I, for one, welcome the thinning of the herd. :-)

Postscript: I wrote this in a coffee shop waiting for a job interview today. I'm writing this addendum on the train ride home afterward, after finding out that I was actually being interviewed for two positions: a "pure" system administration role, where everything is clearly operationally defined and the team has clear goals and deadlines to work in, or a position which was defined as "we do the stuff that falls through the cracks" by one of the senior administrators on the team. I don't think the recruiter had any idea why I had such a huge grin on my face when she told me that, and seemed surprised when I didn't have any difficulty saying which position I felt more attracted to.

Syndicated 2005-11-22 21:15:00 from esm


I finally got around to setting up Trac for "managing" (if that's the right word) my software development. I don't have a lot ongoing right now, but all the old stuff I worked on has been languishing on my harddrive without any visibility. while some of it is personally pretty embarassing to admit to writing, it doesn't do any good to anyone collecting dust. So, have at it, if source code is your thing. It's bolted up to my Subversion respository (in regular and XML flavors), which you can also browse with ViewVC.

Syndicated 2005-11-21 13:39:00 from esm

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