Spring Cleaning at Chaos Central

Once again, as winter draws to a close, it’s time to assess our systems, shovel out the office, and plan for the year ahead.  But, we seem to be a bit late, as everything catches up at once.  This has been one of those weeks/months where things fall apart when touched.

With tax time rapidly approaching, it’s that time of year to fire up the Windows XP virtual machine to run TurboTax.  Realizing that Microsoft is finally, in April of 2014, pulling the plug on the venerable platform first released in 2002, after three service packs, innumerable hotfixes, and an on-again, off-again sliding End-of-Life date, not to mention three successor (if not successful) systems.  Of course, many of us Unix professionals who don’t depend on Windows for our livelihood have nearly abandoned Microsoft altogether, but still are plagued with having to keep a working copy of Windows around “somewhere,” increasingly as a virtual desktop residing on a Linux or Apple workstation or server.

Vista was a complete failure: our copy–that come with “rover,” our 2007 Compaq laptop that has run Ubuntu Linux (and been updated at least every 2 years) since we unpacked it–spent its life unused but available as an alternate boot option until the hard drive failed and was replaced in 2012, with no hope (or desire) to revive the Windows installation. We had acquired a copy of Windows 7 with our HP Netbook ‘mini’ in 2010, which copy also lay dormant, minutes after unpacking it, taking up hard drive space until recently.  With the increasing dependence on Windows security (if there is such a thing) solutions for networking in the government, it looked like we might have to revive it, just to do business.  The first boot-up of Win7 in over three years took 3 days to complete, installing the updates, with multiple reboots.  Happily, in the meantime, the Unix/Linux support team, of which I am part, found a Linux solution to our immediate needs, so the NTFS partitions lapsed into dormancy once more–until the prospect of the demise of XP sent us shopping for an updated alternative for the Microsoft interoperability problem.  We do have some Windows applications that happily run under WINE, the Linux WINdows Emulator, but many others don’t.

Having migrated a friend’s home system from Apple (due to a serious case of narcolepsy in her Imac, a rare but aggravating problem that Apple seems to want to ignore) to a shiny new HP laptop, we had become painfully introduced to Windows 8, that ‘new idea’ from Microsoft that turns your desktop or laptop into a badly designed giant cell phone with no phone service.  A few minutes with that made me almost long for Vista.  But, realizing that Windows 7 seems to be Vista overlaid with the XP desktop, we decided the best option for the Chaos Central network would be to integrate Windows 7 into our stable of virtual machines, to be pulled up on demand, anywhere on the network it was needed.

Attempts to migrate the Windows 7 installation on the Netbook to a virtual appliance proved to be frustrating, as it appears to be difficult, if not impossible, to create a copy that doesn’t demand to see your genuine Microsoft license to boot up, which is difficult when you have a machine that doesn’t have an optical drive, and did not come with an install disk in the first place.  Thinking (wrongly, it turns out), that making a ‘recovery disk’ on a thumb drive would suffice, we proceeded to do so, which promptly destroyed the Ubuntu boot partition, rendering the machine totally useless, since that is also where the GRUB boot manager keeps the information on how to boot to all the systems, including Windows.  Erk.

So, time to reinstall Linux.  Having also been increasingly disenchanted with the Unity desktop (which turns your Linux desktop or laptop into a decently designed giant cell phone with no phone service), I decided to install Mint Linux (yet another Debian-based variant, similar to Ubuntu), with the XFCE desktop, a lightweight system that is annoyingly similar in appearance to the XP desktop, but nonetheless familiar and functional, as far as menu navigation goes, and with the ability to paste hot links all over your desktop instead of in a peek-a-boo toolbar with inscrutable icons instead of text labels.

Of course, once Grub was restored, we could boot to Windows, but, in process of trying to get around the Grub issue in order to export the Windows system, we ended up running the newly-created Windows Recovery disk, which restored the Windows 7 installation to Day 0 (no patches, no added software or files)–and promptly refused to boot again without the Genuine Microsoft Windows 7 installation disk, which we still don’t have, and for which the “Recovery Disk” is not a substitute, despite the fact that is the only thing we end users can create from the installed system we bought and paid for.  Have I mentioned lately how much I dislike Windows?

At this point, we are at the verge of simply continuing on with a static XP system, for as long as Quicken and Electric Quilt will support their applications on it.  Setting aside this issue for a while, having given up a chunk of our on-line and off-line storage to yet another unusable Microsoft product, we turned our focus back to the primary business of making and supporting Linux software, and the goal of organizing the accumulated piles of paperwork and other paraphernalia in the office.

Just then, my desktop workstation, ‘zara,’ which was recently converted to CentOS6 to be a bit more compatible with the customer development systems on the server, suddenly shut down in the middle of browsing the web.  That usually means overheating.  We had recently done a bit of mid-winter housecleaning on ‘strata,’ our big development laptop, which had been shutting down because of overheating, and also had thoroughly cleaned the interior of the virtualization server when we replaced the hard drives in it last month.  The laptop fan had stopped running, but a thorough cleaning and redressing the wire harness got it running again, solving that problem.

The desktop machine was another issue.  The CPU heat sink resembled the filter in the clothes dryer, and the fan was barely turning over.  After cleaning the heat sink fins of lint and giving a fan a few spins in an attempt to “loosen it up,” it still wouldn’t turn over more than a few turns.  So, we pulled it and peeled off the sticker over the shaft bearing. intending to re-lubricate the bearing.  Unfortunately, the bearing seal on this fan was plastic instead of rubber, and couldn’t be easily removed.

'armonk,' cannibalized only days after being removed from service
‘armonk,’ cannibalized only days after being removed from service

But, we had recently retired our Internet gateway server, ‘armonk,’ a 12-year-old IBM desktop machine running FreeBSD, replacing it with a Raspberry Pi, which is more than adequate for that use.  The IBM had been running smoothly, so I  went to the temporary holding area for dead computers (which has encroached on the studio area downstairs), popped the lid, and pulled the CPU fan.  It spun smoothly, so I bored out the mounting screw holes to countersink the shorter screws for the AMD CPU heat sink on zara, reassembled the system, and we’re back on the air again.

So, here we are, behind in our work, with the retired IBM now truly inoperative, no Windows 7 working copy, taxes undone, and the office and network still not completely reconfigured as we planned.  The fan fiasco occurred in the middle of replacing the printer table under the window with a storage cube system.  The old HP 1200 laser printer, which we haven’t used for several years, was finally taken off “standby” and retired along with the IBM server.  The storage cube now holds the ethernet switch, wireless router, Raspberry pi network servers and overflow books, in preparation for moving Judy’s desktop workstation, ‘giskard’ from her downstairs studio to the table formerly occupied by the IBM, and the old laptop, ‘rover,’ downstairs, to make space on the office table.

'zara' and 'rover,' with the network fixtures tucked away in the new storage unit, but clutter still in plain view...
‘zara’ and ‘rover,’ with the network fixtures tucked away in the new storage unit, but clutter still in plain view…

Oh, and the color laser printer suddenly decided it is out of cyan and yellow toner, printing everything with a magenta cast.  With receipts on the government contracts running behind (30-day due dates are simply ignored, by official policy) and a few months of lean billable hours behind us, the prospect of shelling out several hundred dollars for new toner cartridges just doesn’t fit the budget this month.  The ink-jet printer in Judy’s studio is out of black toner–we have a new cartridge, but waiting to move the workstation upstairs to service that one…

So it goes.  Spring cleaning continues: the goal here was to unclutter the office and upgrade the network services with fanless/solid-state low power devices that are reliable and recover automatically after power failures.  At the same time, it is hard to schedule a shutdown time to open the cases and blow out the accumulated dust that is the primary killer of computers, and to replenish supplies.  We don’t print a lot these days, and toner seems to have a finite shelf life that sometimes is longer than the useful life of the printer itself, so we tend not to order ahead.  A couple years of competitive bidding on contracts that trimmed upgrade/replacement budgets to the bone, plus the low ratio of billable to overhead time during contract turnover times means keeping vital systems running well past their reliable life, risking work disruption due to inevitable disk and fan failures.

'giskard's new home, next to the server.
‘giskard’s new home, next to the server.

On a final note, moving Judy’s old workstation upstairs seems to have killed the monitor, an old, early flat-panel model that had been cantankerous at best.  So, we’re up and running on our one remaining ancient and massive glass CRT monitor, until we can afford a new modern one to service both her workstation and the Dell virtualization server.  Right now, we have to switch the cable back and forth for the rare times we need a console on the big Dell server.  I did dig out an old KVM  switch (keyboard-video-mouse, not to be confused with Linux Kernel Virtual Machine, which is what we run on the server) to share one console between two machines, but the circuitry in that had failed either from lack of use or too much moving.   We’re due for another desktop machine, budget permitting, as ‘giskard,’ a Linux machine built from spare parts at least six years ago, isn’t modern enough or robust enough to run what we need, and the audio has never worked right, and we are way overdue for new monitors.