Ted Cahall

Thoughts on Computers and Software

Windows 7
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I just realized that I bought my "new" Windows 7 machine way back in late January.  The thing is amazing: 8GB RAM, i7 860 Quad Core CPU, 3.0Gbps RAID-1 SATA drives, etc.  I recently went out and bought a 30 inch Samsung monitor so I could put the video card in 2560x1600 mode.  The speed, video, stability, etc. of this machine are incredible!

The most amazing thing is the OS.  I skipped Vista due to all of the bad press - coupled with the fact that XP mostly did everything I needed from a desktop OS.  Mostly was the key part of that sentence.  It really could not handle more than about 2GB of memory efficiently - and I had some leaky open-source apps that regularly gobbled that up since I rarely reboot...

Additionally, Microsoft has tossed in some FREE apps that were not available under XP as part of their Windows Live Essentials program.  The most significant of those apps (to me) is Movie Maker.  I regularly edit and upload portions of my SCCA Club Racing videos using Movie Maker.  It is simple and easy - which fits my video skill level really well.  I am also in the process of adding in a TV Tuner card so I can really utilize the Windows Media Center software that came with my Windows 7 Ultimate version.  That should make it even more interesting to connect to my Xbox-360 (which now gives my AppleTV a run for the money in renting movies from the Internet).

I now regularly run over 3GB of apps without any issues on the machine whatsoever.  I have not added all the DB servers, app servers, etc. that I used to run on my various Windows desktops - but that is because I never retire my old machines and they are still on the network somewhere.  I finally have created what is mostly a desktop machine used as a desktop.

No question, Windows 7 is a really fantastic OS and will continue to be my main machine to access all the other crazy hardware I have running in my basement and various other rooms in my house.

Ted Cahall

Evolution of the geek
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Over the years, the definition of a geek has evolved. I guess it started with a pretty high bar (think Wozniak in a garage with wire-wrapped motherboards in the '70s), and then dipped for a while.

For a while it simply meant you had a PC at home (probably early to mid '80s).   It then moved back up-scale to building your own PCs from components: case, motherboard, CPU, heat sink, drives, memory, etc.  It moved along to the requirement of having a couple of PCs at home that shared an Internet connection.  Eventually you need a few servers for file & print - and maybe a database or web server or two... Need a little internal DNS for any of that?

I have generally felt I was reasonably eligible for at least honorary geek status.  I wrote my first software on an IBM mini-computer at 15 years old back in the mid-'70s, had a PC in the early to mid-'80s (and an EECS degree), built my own desktops and servers from components in the mid-'90s, added a server cabinet and network in the early-'00s, etc.  Not sure if the fact that I have a Cisco PIX and know how to configure it from the command line counts for anything.

I used a few hours over the last 3 day weekend to bring up a Hadoop cluster on 3 CentOS nodes in my basement cabinet.  I am heading for a six node cluster.  I had a "single-node cluster" working in about 10-15 minutes.  I have always scratched my head at the concept of a "single-node" cluster.  Seems like an oxymoron to me. 

Single-node "cluster" up and running - this is easy (I thought)...  The hard part was getting the distributed version working.  It is always some simple thing that hangs you up.  In this case, it was the fact that CentOS shares the machine's hostname with the loopback connector in the /etc/hosts file.  This caused Java to bind to the loopback address (127.0.0.1) when it was listening on the NameNode and JobTracker.  It worked fine in a single node configuration as the DataNodes and TaskTrackers were also looking for the loopback connector on that machine.

Thank goodness for the invention of the search engine.  This handy little post saved me a lot of time debugging the issue:
http://markmail.org/message/i64a3vfs2v542boq#query:+page:1+mid:rvcbv7oc4g2tzto7+state:results

I had been tailing the logs to the DataNodes and could see they could not connect to the NameNode.  I also saw that from netstat that the NameNode was binding to the loopback connector.  I just was not thinking clearly enough to see that it was not also bound to the static IP address of the NameNode host.  Splitting the loopback connector and static IP address into two lines in the /etc/hosts file did the trick.  I thought the days of editing /etc/hosts were long over with the use of DNS.

I guess the bar for being a home computer geek means running distributed processing from a rack in your basement in 2010.  Now on to a little MapReduce, Pig and Hive work this weekend.

Ted Cahall

USB Connectors and Memory Cards
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This morning I decided to grab a few photos off of my friend's camera I borrowed when I went to the World Class Driving 200 MPH EXTREME event last weekend. After all, it has a mini-USB connector on the camera (I thought) and I have dozens of cables from the myriad of devices I have purchased over the years.


Much to my surprise, the Olympus FE-370's mini-USB connector is very "mini".  In fact, it is so mini, it is called "micro" USB.  It is just slightly smaller than mini and will not accept any of the many mini cables that I own.  Being that there is literally two and a half feet of fresh snow outside and not being the type to give up easily, I fished around for a few of my memory readers and removed the memory card from the camera.

My handy little Transcend RDP8 memory card reader can read four different formats.  This should be no problem.  Denied!  It turns out the Olympus has a special memory card called an xD Picture Card.  These are probably more common that I think - but not common enough for my Transcend reader that I bought for my 16GB CF card.  My SanDisk reader (2 formats) would not accept it as well.

Looks like I need to trudge out into the cold and snow to borrow the cable for the camera.  I should probably invest in a micro-USB cable of my own and a newer memory card reader as well.

Ted Cahall


Kubuntu and Wubi
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After playing with Debian and Ubuntu, I wanted to see what the latest in KDE looked like. I have mostly been a Gnome user and had read some interesting tidbits on KDE 4.3 in LinuxJournal. I did not want to "polute" my Ubuntu installation by downloading all of the KDE parts to it, so I decided I would add a Kubuntu partition to my Ubuntu box - as well as test Kubuntu on my 64bit Windows machines using Wubi.

I was suprised to see that the installers for Ubuntu and Kubuntu are not really from the same code base. The installation on my 32 bit Ubuntu box went off without a hitch as I had a spare drive on it and I used that for the new partition. I needed to manually change the partitions with the partition manager so it could leave the old Ubuntu 9.04 and 9.10 versions where they were. Even this was simple and straight forward.

I guess my biggest surprise was that Wubi does not install Kubuntu/Ubuntu to run "on top of Windows" as I thought it would. I had thought there was an additional VXLD layer or something that was written to let Linux run as a guest OS on top of Windows XP. This would have been really cool. Sort of like Cygwin on steroids. This may sound ridiculous, but a colleague long ago, Bill Thompson, wrote such a VXLD for Windows back in the mid '90s that allowed x86 versions of Unix to run on top of Windows.

I searched around the web and Facebook and LinkedIn to see if I could find Bill. With much digging I found him on LinkedIn. His start-up was called "nQue". He was also a file system guru that wrote a lot of CR-ROM file system drivers, etc. after the start-up went south.

Needless to say, I think if that feature could be added to the Wubi concept, a lot more people might try Ubuntu right on their Windows desktop as an application environment without requiring a reboot. I know Wubi does not alter the Windows partitions - so it is still a fairly painless way to try Ubuntu without risking much. Users can always uninstall it as they do any Windows application it if they are not happy with it. I just prefer to rarely reboot my systems if I can avoid it.

Ted Cahall

Ubuntu and Debian Installation Fun
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The "home data center" is getting a bit crazy to maintain. It is a good thing I have so much free time on my hands (not). I did finish a couple of the projects on my list last weekend. I wanted to upgrade one of my P4 3.0GHz "home brew" machines from Fedora Core 3 to Ubuntu and put Debian server on one of the "new" used Dell 2850 servers I bought from work. I am now the proud systems administrator of both of these machines - with plenty of fun along the way.

I started with the Fedora Core 3 to Ubuntu conversion by making sure all of the applications I had written in Java, PHP, Perl, sh, as well as the databases in MySQL had been successfully ported to another CentOS machine and regression tested. That took longer than expected (of course). I had already used BitTorrent (thanks Bram Cohen) to download Ubuntu 9.04. I like their numbering scheme as even I can figure out how new/old the rev is. I then went and installed it on my "home brew" Intel motherboard based system. It worked like a charm and I was checking out its slick UI and features within minutes. So far, so good.

Next I decided to see how the graphics worked and if I could get it into 1920x1280 mode with my 24" monitor. That was a tad trickier - but I was pleased to see that it went out on the Internet and figured out where to get the latest NVidia driver that supported the video card I had bought years ago. That was slick and the graphics were awesome. In high res mode it even puts some transparency to windows and gives them "momentum distortion" as you move the window. Not sure how useful it is - but it looks pretty cool.

I like to sit in my home office and use VNC to access the 7 Linux boxes running in my basement and other rooms (versus running between them to try things). I know that "real systems administrators do not use VNC" as told to me by one of our real systems administrators at AOL (and CNET years ago). I am not embarrassed to say I am not a real systems administrator and I like the graphical UI access to all of these machines. It makes working on them so much easier with 4 or 5 windows open at a time. So here is where the rub is. I enabled VNC, ran back to my office, and tried it. No luck. I made sure SSH worked and I could get to the box - that was all set and good to go. I check that the machine was listening on port 5901 - that was good too. A little snooping in the VNC log file let me know it could not execute the /etc/X11//xinit/xinitrc script. I thought that was odd but enabled execute permissions on the file and everything worked.

As I performed a routine update of the OS and files, it let me know that Ubuntu 9.10 was now out (as it was past October - month 10 in year 2009). I had downloaded 9.04 a month earlier when I began thinking of the project. A 9.10 upgrade sounded great - so I decided to "go for it". Bad decision. After the upgrade the video would not work in graphics mode and I could only bring the system up in text mode. Not a big deal for a "real systems administrator" but definitely not what I was looking for - especially on a desktop machine where I wanted to check out the cool graphics in Ubuntu.

Since the machine had no real work on it and I did not feel it was worth my time to really figure it all out in 80x24 text mode as I trouble shot the X Window system, I simply put 9.04 back on the machine and got it working where it was before the upgrade. This would represent my fallback case in a worst case scenario. I then used BitTorrent to get 9.10 on a DVD. Ubuntu allows you to add multiple OS versions by partitioning the drive. I did that and shared the drive with 9.04 and 9.10 and performed the installation. 9.10 came up and worked from scratch - but the video upgrade would not work. When I tried to get it to go out and upgrade the video driver as it had in 9.04, it kept telling me that there were no drivers and that the upgrade was not possible. This did not let me use the 1920x1024 graphics mode of the card or monitor.

After playing with the software update tool, I was able to find some NVidia drivers that were available and downloaded those. Once I did that the system finally let me do the upgrade to enhanced video mode and use the 1920x1280. I am not sure why the 9.10 version was not able to automatically find these drivers as the 9.04 version was, but clearly this was why the upgrade had failed when I tried to go from 9.04 to 9.10 "in place". The VNC issue for xinitrc still existed and I again corrected that. Project complete!

The Debian 5.0.3 server install for my Dell 2850 proved to be less frustrating - but not without hiccups. I had downloaded the first 3 DVDs for Debian and proceeded to the basement to start the install. That is when I noticed that this 2850 came with a CD-ROM drive and not a DVD-ROM drive! I had already put CentOS on the other Dell 2850 months ago - so I "assumed" that both machines had DVD-ROM drives. Bad assumption... The nice thing about Debian is that is allows a "net install" CD to be burned that is fairly small. It then downloads the rest of what it needs as it goes along. So this is the route I chose for the Debian server. From there the install was fairly straightforward. The graphics are nowhere as nice and Ubuntu - but this is a server install and I don't have a fancy video card in the 2850 anyway. The VNC issue for xinitrc also exists with this version of Debian - which is no surprise as Ubuntu is a downstream distribution of Debian. Another project complete and now I have systems to compare different OS features and issues and keep up with some of the pilot projects we are doing at work to streamline software distribution, etc.

Ted Cahall

Windows 7, Snow Leopard, and trying to edit race cam videos...
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I finally got around to installing Windows 7 on a used Dell Precision 360 w/ 1GB RAM that I bought from work. During installation I somehow fried the AGP video card's DVI port. I was able to still get the VGA port to work - and was impressed with the graphics and performance.

I went out and bought a new AGP card and am now really impressed with the "Aero" themes and video effects. The system is amazingly fast.

I figured I would look at the Microsoft Live extensions including the Movie Maker download. I was able to get the software up, running, and edit one of the MPEG videos from my TraqMate race cam within minutes. This was really interesting to me as everyone says the Mac and Final Cut are the way to go. Movie Maker was FREE - while Final Cut Express was $199.00 at the Apple Store. :(

I had recently bought the Snow Leopard upgrade for my Intel based Mac and Final Cut Express 4.0 to look at editing the videos. At least on Final Cut Express (not sure about Pro), the version of MPEG that the car cam shoots is not recognized. I need to read in the video with the software provided by TraqMate. The "fun" part about MPEG is that the file extension does not say it all as there are 3 versions of MPEG videos... It seems that the TraqMate shoots MPEG2 and Final Cut only recognizes  versions 1 and 3. TraqMate makes a video conversion utility that I have not tried yet. http://traqmate.com/downloads/videoconverter/TQConvertInstall.exe.  There are several other free utilities out there as well.

I would have though that a pay program from Apple would have at least the minimum features of the FREE program from Microsoft...

When I was done, I went to post the video to YouTube - but - YouTube was down! I first tried at 11:15AM ET today - and it was down for a while. It was back up when I checked back at 11:30AM. Movie Maker posts directly to YouTube. So here it is.


Ted Cahall



AOL Wins Green IT Award from Uptime Institute
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It was great to be up in NYC last Wednesday representing AOL.  The Uptime Institute awarded AOL its Green IT Award for "Data Center Energy Efficiency Improvement: IT".

Great work by Brad Allison in creating SUMO and for the data center and SA teams for pushing its usage.  This tool allows AOL to identify underutilized servers and either decommission them - or bundle them up onto virtualized hosts.

It is great to work with dedicated people that are not only smart, but care about their environment at the same time.

Ted Cahall


Internet Architecture Video
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Back sometime in 2004/2005 when I was the CIO/SVP of Engineering for CNET Networks, they shot a video of me explaining, "Scaling out an Internet Architecture".  I was thinking about the current publishing system at AOL, DynaPub, that we developed in 2007 after I arrived.  It was interesting after I watched the video again how close DynaPub follows the key principles described in it.

The only parts the video does not cover are:
  • Use of Lucene as the Search engine and SOLR as the container to hold Lucene (we invented SOLR while I was at CNET).
  • Use of XML over HTTP as the transport layer between the App Servers and DBs / Search engine.
  • Use of denormalized MySQL tables for speed
  • The main tool, the CMS, and its very specialized table structure for high-performance.
The AOL Publishing system is the fourth generation publishing system that I have been involved in either designing or managing.  IMHO, most of the: bloated, over-designed, needlessly complex issues from previous publishing systems have been eradicated in DynaPub.  It also has ZERO licensing or maintenance costs as it is all built on open-source - including the operating system - as mentioned in a previous blog post here.

Ted Cahall

See my auto blog!

Employee Purchase Program - more servers
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I recently ordered and received a couple more servers from the AOL Employee Purchase Program.  They are a couple of Dell 2850s with 4GB of RAM.  I also picked up a nice Dell desktop for $100 as well.  Can never have enough of those.  I grabbed some speakers for $5 to hook up to one of my Apple AirPort Express units to allow music in a remote room through iTunes.

Onto installing CentOS on the servers and Windows on the PC.  This should complete my home data center.  I am really racking up a power bill.

Ted Cahall

CentOS rocks
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I upgraded my home "data center" recently with the addition of two used HP DL320s.  They both have 4GB of RAM and two 15k 36GB drives in a RAID1 configuration.  I build and buy hardware as a hobby to keep me close to the reality of managing software systems and data centers.

I decided to run CentOS 5.2 on these new systems.  It is fantastic.  You have to love the GPL that makes this possible.  While most companies making their first foray into Linux might not feel comfortable using CentOS, mature companies that have been using some form of RHEL for a few years should feel very comfortable.  How many support calls do you make in a year anyway?  Needless to say, we are migrating our company to CentOS at a significant annual savings.

I would have gone to Debian, as I needed a free alternative  to improve my company's operating margins, but why not use CentOS when it is binary compatible?  Easy decision.

Seems much like my decisions to move off BEA WebLogic to Tomcat and off Sybase to MySQL over the years.  It is almost hard to believe that people payed for the Netscape Web Server now that Apache is ubiquitous.  Even the days when people payed for Alta Vista, Verity, or FAST search products seem distant now that Lucene and SOLR are available.

Ted Cahall

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