What must I save with my computer?

Some weeks the article I write comes easily and some weeks I have to mull it over for a few days, start and restart a few times and so forth. This week’s article is of the latter; my aim is clear but how to deliver that aim in a fashion most people will understand is not. At issue is what should we save when we buy computer software, apps, operating systems, etc. Should you be concerned when the “things” I recommend aren’t included with your purchase?

Why do I suggest being so careful with these licenses? Without proof of ownership, you will be put in the position of having to buy it again; very much like paying a second time for something you already have.

Any purchase that includes software should include license information; this may be a number, or code, or a sticker, or certificate that embodies proof of license to use. This is usually the only “thing” that is important to keep (I’ll discuss an exception later) and it is extremely important that this proof be kept. In most cases the media needed to reinstall can be obtained if and when that becomes necessary; but you will need to have that proof of purchase, or license information for the install to succeed.

Fortunately, the license information (whether it is a sticker or a sheet of paper, or a small card) is usually quite small and easily stored (also easily lost); however, this is where many computer owners get in trouble. You really do need to identify and save that original item, or information. If you buy online, it may come in an email (yes print that and save it, yes create a PDF of it and put it with other important documents); such emails really (in my opinion) should be saved as a file on your computer and included in your backups (shove it up to the cloud too). I have also taken the step in some cases of photographing the license certificate and sticking that up in the cloud.
(Important note: just keeping the email is not good enough; it is real common to lose emails over time. Almost guaranteed you will lose the necessary email in the event that you have to reinstall something)

Please note, you don’t own software; at best you own the privilege of limited use of the software you purchase. It is this distinction that leads to what I see as a serious problem currently infecting the computer Industry. What if my purchase did not include any such materials? You buy a computer and there is no sticker attached to it with the license information for Windows or OSX; there is no license information for the productivity suite that came with it (microsoft office for instance), and there are no installation disks included either. Two things; either the software you have acquired is not legitimate or the license information is embedded in the product. Let us assume the latter; in this case you need to immediately make installation or recovery disks (very much like a backup) before there is any opportunity for something to go wrong (if you are lucky, there is a routine for doing this all prepared for you).

One of the ways I choose between computer manufacturers is to look and see if the product comes with restoration media (or original install media) AND license materials; if it doesn’t, I am highly unlikely to make the purchase. In my mind, my having to make the media will cost 3-4 DVD’s and a few hours of my time; a machine that costs $100 more but includes these things is the better buy.

Even at today’s prices the purchase of a computer or laptop involves a significant amount of money; please make an informed choice when buying. If in doubt, let us help. It just takes a phone call.

1 phone, 2 numbers?

Another week and another challenge. The desire to have a cell phone answer calls for 2 numbers came up this week. It isn’t a new problem for us; we provide service to folks in several different parts of the United States and have used a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) solution for a while to make our phone a local call for our clients.

This week my choice of antiquated phone services caught up with me and the local cellular providers were unable to port in my phone number to a new phone; the solution was to get a new number, but, my clients are all accustomed to my old phone number. So, I went searching for a solution that would let my clients call the number they know and reach my new phone (which just happens to have a new number).

The cell company wasn’t going to provide a solution because they couldn’t find a way to bring in the one thing that was important to me; that phone number. I found 3 solutions (I am currently implementing 2 of them) and they were all quite cost effective. The first solution was to port my old number into a VOIP system and set it to forward to the new number. It turns out that the VOIP people are accustomed to dealing with older phone services and were able (with a 5 day delay) to port in the old number and I setup two (2) call forwards to the new number so my calls would arrive at the new phone and number regardless of where I was in the porting process.

I also found two other solutions; one with Google Voice. Google voice is an interesting service; it requires that you have a google account (these can be acquired at no charge) and provides an answering service for the chosen phone number. This answering service can either take a message or forward the call to your choice of cell phone numbers or land line numbers (does anyone remember land lines, phones connected to a wire?). There are a couple of things to know before we all jump out and sign up for this service; first, porting in an existing number costs $20.00 (a one time cost) and second, this service answers calls like an electronic secretary. That is, it takes the call and asks for the person to state their name before forwarding the call. Based on how the calling person answers, it will then forward the call to all numbers it has been programmed to forward to or takes a message from the caller. If it takes a message, it can email that message, or alert you to check for the message on your google account or a few other options.

Another Service I found (that had good reviews) was Sideline; Sideline is a tad more transparent than Google (no robot secretary asking for the caller’s name) and may require a $0.99 fee each month (no fee depending on which features you use) but can also port in your well known phone number and forward it to your choice of phone numbers. The one gotcha involved with sideline is that your original account number must stay with sideline (so don’t use your important well known number to setup the account unless you intend to leave it connected to Sideline). When all is setup, the caller calls your number, it is automatically forwarded to your chosen destination number and the sound quality is like any other call; the only difference is that the incoming caller id indicates that it is a forward.

In any case, you can, with these services, setup one cell phone to answer 2 or more numbers and go about your daily activities only needing to carry one phone. Naturally, each of these services can do other things for you and which service you choose might depend on which one has additional features of interest or need for your business. If you have questions or want assistance with other technology issues please call Benediktson Computer, Inc. At (575) 956-9732 or email to help@benediktson.com.

Dealing with slowing networks

Sometimes troubleshooting internet issues leads you through unusual twists and turns and sometimes it is just about checking on the basics. In the last week I have been asked to fix connectivity for two different businesses. When I hear that request my curiosity gets the better of me; I really need to find out the answer to “what is leading these people to ask for this service?”. I confess that each case is unique but it usually revolves around network or internet speed issues.

A quick history of networks and the internet might be helpful here. Way back when, in the age of dial-up service, we used coax cable in various topologies (rings, stars, chains, etc.) and networks transmitted data at amazing speeds of 20k (thousand bits per second) all the way up to 2m (2 million bits per second); this was okay because printers could produce up to 30 characters per second and modems (dial-up devices used to bring internet access to your network or a single machine) were capable 120 baud (12 words per second = approximately 120 bits per second) , 300 baud, 1200 baud (a fairly common speed at one point) all the way up to 9600 baud (realistically somewhere between 480 and 960 characters per second). As networking matured, standards like 10 base 2 and 10 base T took hold and networking speeds outstripped the speed that machines could take in data. Now we use networking based on 100 base T (fast ethernet) and 1000 base T (gigabit ethernet – 1 billion bits per second with one character requiring 10 bits) running on fiber optic or category 5 cable (cat5, cat5e, cat6); and, just for completeness, our modern networks are similar to the old star networks.

Up until recently, the new network speeds were significantly faster than anyone had a use for. Up until recently, most emails were very small (a few hundred up to a few thousand characters at most). Now we have several common technologies that require HUGE amounts of data; digital photographs can be made up of 3 million to 40 million bytes (8 bits in a byte) or more, videos may consume 3 billion or more bytes per hour of video and documents that once averaged 800 bytes per page can now (because they may include photos, graphs, drawings, videos, etc.) use more than 1 MB (mega byte, 1 million characters) per page. The result is that it is now possible for a small office to experience congestion on their network (like traffic at rush hour; everything slows down and may seem to come to a complete stop). To exacerbate this issue we also have a lot more devices that may be using the network and each device can have all kinds of helpful and cherished utilities running that depend on network and internet support.

It is this new tendency to consume great amounts of data and send it over the local network or out into the internet that is a primary cause of network congestion. What I see, all too often, is that most of this is unintended traffic; what I mean by this is that the folks using all of this stuff (bandwidth, or transmission potential) have no idea that they are consuming (demanding) all of this data or any data at all. At least the driver of a car who gets on a main arterial at rush hour has some understanding that they represent one small part of the traffic congestion; computer users who listen to internet radio on their phone (just one of hundreds of examples) while at work have no idea (most of them anyway) that they are using up a measurable percentage of the total internet bandwidth available to the office network (and they are adding to general network congestion on the local network also).

So, how does this affect you? I looked at a home network last week because the client complained of not being able to print on occasion and wanted me to fix the network connectivity. My first look revealed that all was well with the equipment, and that lot of data was being successfully moved by the network. After a few questions about what was included in the network, what it was supposed to do and so on, I realized that I was seeing way too much network traffic for those few pieces of equipment and the tasks that they were intended for. This can have several causes and I attempted to verify or rule out a few of the most common. A damaged network adapter or damaged router (the device that handles routing information from the internet to all devices on a network and between devices on a network) can cause this kind of extreme traffic buildup. After a couple tests and component replacements this was ruled out; so on to seeing if the traffic was intended traffic and just far greater than the client (or I) suspected; but I was able to rule that out with a few more tests. I then asked the router (to be truthful I started this early on but let it run for a while and then checked on it at this later stage) where the traffic was going and what was the nature of the traffic. It was at this point that we (the client and I) learned that several smart phones (in the house, innocently being used by household members) were responsible for 95% of the traffic on the network and were keeping the network at 95-100% of capacity. The solution in this specific case was simple and some were happy.
In another case, this week, I had a similar request and this time I found that a computer had been set to back itself up to the cloud, daily. Whenever this computer had some idle time it continued the process of backing itself up and the internet appeared to completely stop for everyone else in the office. Adjustments were made to the backup policies on that computer (part of many of the better on line backup services) and it was set to only backup things that changed and the problem disappeared.

When your internet performance suddenly changes for the worse (who complains when it suddenly gets better?), it can be an issue with your provider or it can be a change in your habits, it can be a sign of viral or malware activity, or it can be some unintended traffic plugging everything up. It can also be the result of interference with wireless transmissions, damage to a network cable or interface, etc.
What ever the cause or causes, it can be very frustrating and it may be one of those problems you look to a consultant or network professional for help with; this is another case where practice really speeds up the process of identifying and fixing the problem.

Alert – SSD lovers w/ Windows 10

So, 2 weeks back Microsoft started pushing out their anniversary update to Windows 10; if you have a real fancy install on an SSD (solid state drive) where only Windows or mostly windows is on the SSD, you might be experiencing freezing, or lock ups in boot up or in normal operation. If you are affected, Microsoft is investigating the issue; in the mean time they offer the following advice: http://answers.microsoft.com/…/5a60d75d-120a-4502-873c-8bfe…

Please note, “small number” should be taken with a grain of salt; if it affects you, that is all that matters. If you have the opportunity, I recommend refusing this upgrade until MS gets it fixed.

Hi, Microsoft has received a small number of reports of Windows 10 freezing after installing the Anniversary Update on systems with the operating system stored on a solid-state drive (SSD) and apps
ANSWERS.MICROSOFT.COM

Updates and Security

Next week I will start a 3 or 4 part series of articles on how to get the most out of your website as an advertising tool; however, this week I am focusing on updates and security concerns.
I get a skewed view of personal and professional computers because I see them when they are having trouble. The ones that don’t have any issues aren’t brought to my attention. Regardless of whether your computer represents a delicious target for hacking or contains nothing of interest for anyone or anything else, you have a fairly similar risk of being hit with a virus, malware or even a directed hacking attack. As a result, the usual tactic of abstaining from updates until you have an issue may not be the best choice (if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it is more like sticking your head in the sand).  Yes, I share the pain of the almost daily updates and the disruption they can provide.  Some updates simply cause the machine to take a long time to start up (while I wait to use it when I was, naturally, in a hurry) and some disable “features” that I or some software package I use depend on; and still others reveal sloppy programming on the part of the authors of some important (to me or the user) product.  All of this and more are real frustrations associated with “updates”.
 
The complexity of modern operating systems, whether it be IOS, OSX, Windows, Android, or Unix (linux), has created a need for constant patching and updating to stay ahead of the virus and malware industry. The update may not seem to be important to what you do on your computer; but, odds are it, or an update that relies on it, are quite likely to improve your computer’s odds of rejecting some malicious code your machine encounters. If you ignore the updates (or reject them), you are leaving the door (your computer) wide open.  Because of the variety of potential attack vectors, the simple anti-virus packages that were adequate a decade ago really aren’t adequate protection today. Today, you need a good firewall, a continuously vigilant anti- virus and anti-malware pair or package and one or more auxiliary on demand protection packages.
 
Even the best Anti-virus and anti-malware products combined with a good firewall and up to date operating system (with all patches, etc.) will occasionally suffer an intrusion or infection; this is where an auxiliary package becomes important. These are usually stand alone products (scanners, security helpers, etc.) that can be run on demand when you suspect an issue or just prophylactically. I always choose one from a trusted vendor that is unrelated to the other products that routinely maintain the computer and its security. Each provider seems to have their own specialty and, occasionally, spotting an issue and removing or correcting it is the result of choosing a tool from the right provider. Since I don’t keep up on who’s tools are best at which problems, I often resort to trying a couple until the problem is resolved.
 
Choosing your security tools is very important because not all security products are on the up and up; some are traps designed to get your system infected while others are more aimed at gathering information for some advertiser than protecting your security. Often I will run into an advertisement or popup claiming to be the next super tool to fix various issues or protect me from all threats; most of these turn out to not be what they claim and instead make things worse. This is where I have a luxury most computer users don’t have; I have a sacrificial computer that I can try these products on and learn about them. If they turn out to be trouble or make a mess out of my computer, I can simply reformat and reload Windows or Linux and be right back where I started.
 
So, what can the everyday computer user do? First, I recommend going with the tools built into your operating system; most have adequate firewall products and these form your first line of defense. If you want something stronger to protect several devices, I recommend a firewall appliance (a small box that goes between your devices and the internet and filters your traffic before it gets to your devices). Next, a good combination anti-virus and anti-malware product (windows 10 comes with Windows Defender which is adequate for most situations but several companies including Sophos, Norton, McAfee, and Trend Micro also provide adequate products.). Third, I recommend products like the demand scanners from any of the above mentioned companies (most of these are available on their websites at no charge) in combination with products from LavaSoft, Malwarebytes.org, Piriform.com, Auslogics.com, and a host of others to try and spot anything that sneaks through the regular lines of defense. I want to be clear, at this point, that it is extremely important to have good recent backups (more than just one or two and preferably in a series going back days and weeks in case the bug(s) have impacted data back that far.); often, recovery from an infection will require restoring some data from a time prior to initial infection (backup media is extremely inexpensive and software to perform automatic backups is inexpensive or included with your operating system or security system).
 
As with many other things about your computing devices, if you have valuable information at risk, please consider contacting a professional before you have issues to help you setup appropriate defenses and maintenance routines, and once you believe you have an issue. The professional is likely to encounter these kinds of problems daily and have lots of practice resolving them (greatly improving the odds of good outcomes; and it may not take them near as much time to get you back fully functional).

Miniature Computers

Last week I ordered in a couple of the newest miniature computers. This last weekend I took a few hours to put them through their paces. The minix NEO Z64 I knew what to expect from and the newest release of that didn’t disappoint. If you really push it hard, it can overheat (particularly if you put it in an insulated box so it can’t radiate heat while playing video intensive games and simultaneously streaming a movie in 1080p) but under the loads it was built for and out where it can radiate heat, it worked flawlessly. This class of machine represents a great way to turn a TV into an advertising kiosk, a nice internet station and a myriad of applications in between. Its small size, square shape and variety of ports (hdmi, ethernet jack, headphone jack, 2 full size usb ports, sd/mmc reader slot) plus built in wireless n, bluetooth with windows 10 pre-installed on a 28gb ssd and 2gb ram connected to a quad core intel atom cpu (1.33-1.8 ghz) allow it to run most windows programs flawlessly and surprisingly quickly. minix neo 64 Perhaps pushing my luck, I also ordered my second “stick” computer; these self-contained computers, fit easily into a pocket or purse and can be powered off the usb port on a television. The AWOW Intel Atom Z3735f is one of many attempts at evolutionary steps forward from the first 2 generations of pc sticks. This one has an internal fan (very quiet) to deal with complaints of early models overheating, 2 usb ports + 1 usb power port to deal with complaints that all ports are taken after you connect a wireless keyboard and mouse combo and dual band ac networking to remedy a number of issues with the early units and their g or n wireless networking. Also in the packaging came a short HDMI cable (in case you don’t want it physically attached to your TV) and an adapter from micro usb to full size usb. Still included on this model from earlier designs is an MMC card slot for up to 64gb memory modules and bluetooth 4.0.

The AWOW pc stick
small, with fan, ac networking

Just think about going to a presentation with a gyro mouse/keyboard combo and this stick in your pocket; any modern tv becomes an instant presentation device with a computer you are familiar with and confident using. Performance is in keeping with its Atom quad core cpu’s capabilities; but when coupled with the 32gb MMC hard drive (solid state), it is surprisingly responsive handling the Microsoft Office 2010 and 2016 apps with ease and all of the web apps I have tried run flawlessly on it. Movies streamed from Netflix and Amazon as well as a variety of shows streamed from Hulu all run in smooth video up to full HD (dependent on your internet speed). Both of these miniature computers are simple representatives of a whole family of new products from a wide range of suppliers. I selected these 2 from the 100 plus choices I found when I started shopping based on my ideas about what I wanted them to do. You may have very different applications for computing power that goes anywhere with you or can be put into a very small niche or used to turn any tv into whatever. There are also many specialty items in the same form factor to provide a wide variety of services; one unit that caught my eye has two digital cable / satellite / over the air tuners in it so that it adds record while viewing a different show ability to a tv, another had multiple ethernet ports and ac wireless built in so it could be a network bridge or switch and access point. As a final thought, imagine that you routinely move between 2 or more “stations” where you use a computer and you have frustrations with using the cloud to keep all of your “stuff” handy. On top of that, who wants to have to configure multiple computers to work the way you find comfortable and have all the tools you want? Instead, you could pop the computer into your pocket and always use the same computer wherever you are working. I know this was the dream of laptop computers, but you can’t just pop a laptop into your pocket and you are constrained to the laptop screen, keyboard and so forth. Keyboards and mice are inexpensive and it would be easy to have your favorite model waiting for you at each station. Walk up, plug in your miniature computer to the tv and turn on the power; in under a minute you are working at your workstation. Enjoy!

SSD Reliability

SSDs are a new phenomenon in the datacenter. We have theories about how they should perform, but until now, little data. That’s just changed.

The FAST 2016 paper Flash Reliability in Production: The Expected and the Unexpected, (the paper is not available online until Friday) by Professor Bianca Schroeder of the University of Toronto, and Raghav Lagisetty and Arif Merchant of Google, covers:

  • Millions of drive days over 6 years
  • 10 different drive models
  • 3 different flash types: MLC, eMLC and SLC
  • Enterprise and consumer drives

Key conclusions

  • Ignore Uncorrectable Bit Error Rate (UBER) specs. A meaningless number.
  • Good news: Raw Bit Error Rate (RBER) increases slower than expected from wearout and is not correlated with UBER or other failures.
  • High-end SLC drives are no more reliable that MLC drives.
  • Bad news: SSDs fail at a lower rate than disks, but UBER rate is higher (see below for what this means).
  • SSD age, not usage, affects reliability.
  • Bad blocks in new SSDs are common, and drives with a large number of bad blocks are much more likely to lose hundreds of other blocks, most likely due to die or chip failure.
  • 30-80 percent of SSDs develop at least one bad block and 2-7 percent develop at least one bad chip in the first four years of deployment.

The Storage Bits take

Two standout conclusions from the study. First, that MLC drives are as reliable as the more costly SLC “enteprise” drives. This mirrors hard drive experience, where consumer SATA drives have been found to be as reliable as expensive SAS and Fibre Channel drives.

One of the major reasons that “enterprise” SSDs are more expensive is due to greater over-provisioning. SSDs are over-provisioned for two main reasons: to allow for ample bad block replacement caused by flash wearout; and, to ensure that garbage collection does not cause write slowdowns.

The paper’s second major conclusion, that age, not use, correlates with increasing error rates, means that over-provisioning for fear of flash wearout is not needed. None of the drives in the study came anywhere near their write limits, even the 3,000 writes specified for the MLC drives.

But it isn’t all good news. SSD UBER rates are higher than disk rates, which means that backing up SSDs is even more important than it is with disks. The SSD is less likely to fail during its normal life, but more likely to lose data