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Scott's Column
GoToMyPC, Development Server, Backup Procedures, Windows XP & Laptop

November 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

This month things are starting to settle in. I am working at my new job. I still don't feel productive enough, but my boss has reassured me that he is happy with my rate of learning. So, this month I would like to get back to normal. This column was originally supposed to be a place where I could talk about technology in my life... from home and work. As my old job became more and more "distasteful" (to put it mildly) I only told about home, and home was dominated with house building. This month I am getting back to technology, even as we try to get the house close to moving in.

GoToMyPC

GoToMyPC is a new web service (I don't know exactly how new, but I just got it a week or so before posting this column.) What GoToMyPC does is allow you to remotely access a computer from across the Internet. Basically you install a small piece of software on the host (the machine you want to access). Then you go to the GoToMyPC web site from any computer connected to the Internet. You log onto the site with your account name and password. Then you pick the computer you want to connect to (if you have more than one computer setup for access).

And it works! I have three computers setup for access. The two computers I have at work, and my home computer. (I don't know the limit, my company is paying for a corporate version for all of us developers.) At work we use pcAnywhere from Symantic to access our servers from our workstations. So, I can access my production Oracle server from home by first using GoToMyPC to access my main workstation and then running pcAnywhere to get to the production server. Now, I realize that is a bit of a kludge, but we don't want to run web service software on our production servers. Anyway, on a fast Internet connection it is a very pleasant experience. In fact, as an experiment I wrote these paragraphs on GoToMyPC from work attached to my home computer.

GoToMyPC has been completely reliable for me so far. However, my Internet connection at work is less so. This is probably a workstation configuration issue. We are in the process of upgrading our LAN environment to a Domain setup with Windows 2000 on all the servers and workstations (more later). Currently I have to provide a user ID and password to get through our firewall. The prompt for the firewall will pop up occasionally. I think this is causing my connection to fail from time to time. However, I have never lost any work. Even if the connection goes down, the work is still running on the remote computer. Until now I have been able to reconnect and there is my work ready for saving. Worse case is that I would have to go to the machine and save my work.

I even used GoToMyPC to access my second work machine running Windows XP so I could show it to my wife before we decided to install it on our laptop. Cool!

From what I understand you supply a separate password for each machine you want to access. This password should (I am make sure it is) different from the password to the GoToMyPC web site. This access password is encrypted and stored only on the host machine.  GoToMyPC doesn't even know it or store it on their servers. This makes things very secure. I don't know of any hacks to this system. With the way it stores and uses passwords to the hosts, it seems like it should be safe. People smarter than me are the ones to ask if it is truly secure... though I know nothing is truly secure in the great big scheme of it all. The big question is... is it secure enough? I think it is... and so does my company.

One last note: It turns out I was right about the connection at work. Our firewall times out after 10 minutes. We have a special utility that maintains the connection. Once I setup the utility my connection at work has been just fine, and access to my workstations from home has been reliable.

Windows XP

I have written that Microsoft's Activation scheme in Windows XP is enough to drive me away from Windows. But when the gold code version of Windows XP showed up in my MSDN subscription, I had to take a look. For starters MSDN subscribers can activate up to ten computers with a single copy of XP... and two versions came in the subscription, Home and Professional. So, for better or worse, I can easily get around what Microsoft is trying to stop... people buying one copy of Windows XP and installing it on all their computers at home.

I am still going to play around with Linux when I build my next machine, but in the mean time I decided to play around with Windows XP.

I like the look. I am a devote critic of any GUI interface that claims to be easy to use. I have put down both Windows a Macintosh in the past, and I see no reason to stop now. Windows XP will be a nice experience... to a point... for new users. This could help make new computer sales to some people better. Also, casual users of Windows will probably enjoy the new look. But serious users, particularly people that know there way around Windows NT or 2000, will probably hate it. It is slower than the old windows on the same hardware. This is not a problem for new computers. The way it has been arranged to allow it to be easy to administer for a novice, will piss off those that already know how to administer Window NT or 2000.

Since my wife is a casual Windows user I was sure she would like the look a lot. Our laptop is a 750 MHz model with 128 MB of Ram. This is about the minimum that will run XP acceptably. I tested it on a 450 MHz machine with 128 MB of RAM. It was quite sluggish. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time it takes for all its subtle animations. Mind you, they all look very nice, but they take time. On a fast machine (about 1 GHz or faster) I would think it will make a pleasurable experience. At 750 MHz it is acceptable for a casual user, but would frustrate a power user. From my experience I would recommend at least 1 GHz with at least 256 MB of memory as the minimum for running XP comfortably.

Overall, Windows XP doesn't really bring anything to the table. When Windows 95 hit the scene it was a huge improvement, and started the flood of 32-bit applications. Windows XP doesn't do that. It runs the same mainstream programs you have been running all along. I did not test it on a machine with a CD-R/RW to know how well it will work with that device. I would think XP should be able to make writing to CD-Rs as easy as copying files to a floppy. I will have to wait until I get my next computer to experiment with that.

Overall I kind of like XP. But I still don't have any reason to recommend anyone spending the money to get it. If you are buying a new machine for home then you will be getting it... and that is good. However, if you are buying a new machine for work, don't get Windows XP Professional. Have the vendor install Windows 2000 Professional while you can. As for buying an upgrade... forgedaboudit. I may do it because I have the disc. I would not deliberately go and pay for it, and can't recommend you buy it either.

In the end remember this... an operating system is supposed to let you run applications. Windows 98 and Windows 2000 let you do that just as well as Windows XP. Wait until the applications have been written to match the interface of XP before upgrading. (I have just enough reservations about Windows ME to think that is the only version that truly needs the upgrade, if for no other reason than to get a huge improvement in stability.

I should be able to tell you more after I get it running on my laptop. I haven't decided (as of this writing, 10/26/01) whether to perform an upgrade or a fresh install. I normally would reformat the hard drive and start from scratch. However, my wife has been using MS Works that came with the laptop. Unfortunately it did not come with an installation disc. So I can't reinstall Works after I reformat the hard drive. I sent a note to Compaq to see if there is a way to get a disc for what is basically a piece of software that I have paid for... but I haven't heard from them yet. Disappointing in itself, thanks Compaq. I would like to give Compaq a chance before doing an upgrade just to keep one piece of software. Besides, the Compaq has its hard drive partitioned in a way that makes it impractical for me to use 4-5 GB of the space on it. If I repartition and reformat I can make that space usable.

I used GoToMyPC to show my wife Win XP as it runs. She found that it was too "cartoon like," so I may not be installing it on my laptop. When I move out of my in-laws I will probably install it in the machine I will build for them. They would make good candidates for it as they are very casual users. I will want to play around with some of its user interface issues to make sure I configure it to the way they work... not the other way round.

Development Server

When I started at my new job all they had for me to work with was the production server. It is a two server cluster running Microsoft's clustering software and Oracle's Failsafe software. Each server is a PIII running at 800 MHz with 1GB of memory. They are connected to a nine drive array that is mirrored (RAID 1) on 18 physical drives. This is setup is in case of failure. From what I understand performance is not an issue at the moment, and some compromises had to be made based on cost. Not a problem. The setup has been running very well.

Each server is running Win NT 4.0 Enterprise Server. We have about 20 GB of actual data in the Oracle 8i databases. I like it. The machines seems more than fast enough. They run very reliably, and they are fairly easy to administer. 

However, I needed a development/test environment. So we took an old server that was out of warrantee, and set it up to "mimic" our production environment. I say mimic and not mirror because a true mirror environment would also mirror the cluster and failsafe setup. The development server is a 2 CPU server running Pentium Pro 200 MHz CPUs. It has 512 MB of memory and 7 physical hard drives... all either 4 or 8 GB each. We setup these drive's partitioning  to match the drive letters on the production server (letters E through O) with enough space on each partition to hold the same files as on production. What this does is allow us to  copy all our scripts and such from the production server to the DEV box and it will all work. And it did with minimal changes. The Oracle consultant remembered that some things didn't go completely smoothly when they setup the production server so we took a little extra care in setting up the DEV box. And it paid off. We were able to get the Development Server completely up and running as an almost mirror of production in one day... that included a complete copy of all the production Oracle data from a full export done that same morning on the production server. 

Work is fun again!

Backups

I have been spending time getting our backup procedures ironed out. We are trying to maintain a point in time recovery setup. We need to make some adjustments to Oracle as to when it writes its archive log files, but other than that we have a pretty good backup plan in place. We perform a cold backup of the entire server once a week. Also, we perform a "hot" backup of Oracle once a day. This basically shuts down one database file at a time and then backs it up. While each file is shutdown transactions are placed in Oracle's Redo log files, and then into Oracle's Archive Log files. Once the database is brought back online everything is just as if nothing had happened.

Next we perform a full export of the database every morning, and an incremental export each night. Finally we backup all the Archive log files every hour. Of course all these backups are written to tape. That's four backup procedures. Cold, Hot, Exports and Archive Logs. I know this is a bit redundant, but this is a production server, and we can't be too safe. Besides, my boss is paranoid about loosing anything, and this is a real time system that costs us real money anytime it is down. We do not backup Oracle's Redo log files, but they are spread across three physical drives, and each of those drives is mirrored, so we always have two copies of them and none are more than an hour old due to the Archive logs that are backed up. It would take a pretty catastrophic event to take out the Redo log files, and even if that happened we would only lose an hour (max) of transactions. A very unlikely circumstance and an acceptable risk.

Conclusion

Wow! It is great to be working... and enjoying it. I love the techie nature of my job and can't wait until next year when we might rewrite the major software here. I can think of a bunch of ways to make the primary application I am responsible for a lot better. Unfortunately, it works (mostly) and it is far less time consuming to patch it then rewrite it... for now anyway. Next year we will be getting new hardware that should require a complete rewrite... I am really looking forward to that.

Until next month...

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