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Scott's Column
Another Final Design, Quicken vs. Money, Home Server Hardware, Missed Training, Etc.

March 1, 2007
By Scott Lewis

I don't have enough time for all this. As you can see I redesigned the look of this site again. I tried to finish my comparison of Quicken and MS Money. I missed a perfect training class for me. And all I can do is think about installing Vista on my laptop.

Current Topics:

  • Missed Training  
  • Home Server - The Hardware  
  • Hard Drives and RAID  
  • Site Redesign... Again  
  • Quicken vs. MS Money  

Missed Training

I found a class in Dallas that was right up my alley. It was a two day class that was specifically for Visual Basic 6 programmers making the transition to Visual Studio 2005. The had sections on Windows "fat" client development, building Windows Services and Web Development.

I am going to be building a major application in the next few months that will run as a Windows Service on an application server. A Windows Service is similar to the way your antivirus software works. It is running on your machine all the time, even if nobody is logged on. It will be cool.

The reason I missed the class was because my boss took too long to get the training approved, and the class was no longer available to register for by the time the paperwork was done. Oops!

I guess it's back to the books to learn this stuff.

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Home Server - The Hardware

Last month we discussed some of the reasons I want to update/replace my home server. The biggest reason is to run SQL Server and/or Oracle. I scrounged around my closet to see what I had. Let's see what hardware I have and need. I am naming this project Cheap Server, because I will do the best I can to scrounge spare parts and build this server for as cheap as possible.

I have an old motherboard/CPU lying in the closet. The motherboard is an Intel D845GEBV2, and it has an Intel 1.7 GHz Celeron processor still plugged in. It does not matter that the motherboard could take up to a 3.06 GHz P4 because those are no longer available. Plus, that would also go against the Cheap Server mentality.

This motherboard takes up to two 184-Pin DDR DIMM modules for memory. The memory required is 266MHz FSB memory, which I believe falls in the PC2100 specification, which I will have to buy. I want 1 GB of memory at the minimum. SQL Server and Oracle 10g each requires 512MB and recommend 1 GB. Since I will probably run both I want at least 1 GB. I can install memory in one or two modules, so whichever gets me to 1 GB cheaper works for me. I figure about $100 for memory.

This motherboard has integrated graphics, sound and Ethernet. Well, 100 Mbit Ethernet. If I want to go up to 1 Gbit Ethernet I will have to buy a card. Since we are doing this on the cheap I will stick with 100 Mbit network access. Besides, my main PC would be the only computer that has a chance to take advantage of Gbit Ethernet. It may be on the motherboard, or I might have to add it. Then there is the cost of a Gbit switch because the router is only 100Mbit. In other words... 100Mbit is it. Besides, all other access is wireless anyway and can't exceed 54Mbits (802.11g).

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Hard Drives and RAID

At the minimum I will "procure" the 120 GB drive from my current server. I may also take the 60 GB drive as well, but I don't know. Either way, 180 GB of storage for a server these days is pretty low. I have always wanted to have a RAID setup. RAID, which stands for Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks, is a method of using multiple physical drives for storage that the Operating System sees as one drive. You can mirror two drives so that you always have two copies of your data (RAID 1). This is cool, and could be handy if one drive fails. You can also use RAID to spread data across two drives (RAID 0), also known as striping. This means that each drive has half the data. In this case losing one drive loses all the data, but you get a performance gain in that it takes close to half the time to read or write data to disc because each disc is handling half the data.

<<< CHECK FOR RAID ON MY MOTHERBOARD >>>

Here's the bottom line with regard to RAID in the home. For redundancy (mirrored drives) it is a joke. I have read so many horror stories about people losing a single drive only to find that they can't boot from the good drive unless it is in a RAID configuration. Will you have a spare "good" drive ready to complete your RAID configuration and access the data on the good drive? Most drives in a RAID environment must be attached to the controller that set them up. If you try to take a good drive out of a computer and install it somewhere else to retrieve its data you could be up that special creek without a paddle. If your RAID controller (motherboard in most home situations) goes belly-up you may never be able to access the data from the RAID discs. Some controllers may require the drives to be identical. Are you going to buy three drives up front in case one fails, keeping a spare drive around that won't be used. This is not cost effective, and totally goes against project Cheap Server.

How often do you see failures in a home environment? Besides, RAID "reduces" the reliability of the entire disc system. Think about it, if two drives each has the same chance to fail, statistically speaking you are twice as likely to have at least one failure. You can read a much better explanation of why RAID is less reliable than a single drive here. In a business environment there is a much stronger need to protect the data, so you live with this increase in complexity and decrease in individual hardware reliability for redundancy of the DATA. This redundancy mixed with proper planning makes your DATA much more secure. However, this does not sound like the system you want in a home server.

What about performance? Stripe the data over two drive and it will be twice as fast. Right? Well, No. I have read that RAID 0 on the desktop provides so little "real world" performance improvement that it is not worth the cost and complexity involved. Keep in mind Project Cheap Server is basically a desktop running two server database applications. Feel free to read this article that shows benchmarks and realistic tests that should dispel the myth about RAID for performance... even for a killer gaming PC. Don't forget, using RAID 0 to stripe data across two drives drastically reduces your reliability since you face the same increase in complexity for mirrored drives but with absolutely no redundancy for the data on those drives. With a 100 Mbit connection to Cheap Server and the Databases being small databases for learning I think one fast drive will be MORE THAN fast enough that I won't see any benefit on my desktop of having RAID 0 on my server.

Backups are more important than RAID in the home. In the end, RAID is out. It is just too much trouble having identical drives, a spare identical drive, etc. to get a very small improvement in performance and potentially less reliable data storage if a hardware failure occurs. Plus it would be too expensive with regard to Cheap Server.

The motherboard supports IDE ATA133 drives. A quick check of Newegg shows only drives from Samsung and Hitachi in that specification. I don't want a hard drive from a TV manufacturer in my server, so let's back it down to ATA100. Seagate bought Maxtor, so let's see what they have. They have a nice 320GB, 7200 RPM Barracuda drive for under $100. Perfect.

I will use the existing case for this server, so I only have to hope the power supply is up to the task. Worst case I might have to spend 40-50 bucks for a decent power supply. I shouldn't need a floppy drive for this server (no RAID that requires drivers on a floppy to setup the discs before installing the operating system). I currently have two optical drives in my main machine, A CD-ROM drive and a DVD/RW drive. I will "borrow" one of these drives to load the operating system and any software I need to install from media. I will use the monitor, keyboard and mouse from my PC while setting up this server, then it will be stored away in the closet.

So we have the motherboard (which includes video, sound & network), case, CPU & hard drives. I will borrow the CD-ROM drive, keyboard, mouse & monitor for setup purposes. I just need to buy memory and optionally buy a larger hard drive. Is there anything else? Can it really be as simple as buying a couple of memory modules and pulling out my screwdriver?

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Site Redesign... Again

As I mentioned last month I didn't really like the way the new design came out. The graphics were too much for this very informational web site. I am not a graphic designer. I decided to pick up where I left off with the blue and white design. I am probably building more and more broken links putting new versions in place. I will try toi stick to this design for at least two months. Once I di that I will start moving all the old content to the new design. It should not be too hard, but will be time consuming. For starters I have a lot of old articles to port to the new pages. Second, I really want to proof read all the old content and fix spelling and grammar mistakes.

I may work on a new banner graphic as well. If I do another graphic it will be a lot more simple than last month's. However, I do like the reflected look, I just might tone it down and do it with just one of the two elements. We'll see. I have been so busy lately I don't have much time to write these articles no less work on tedious graphics and redesigns.

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Quicken vs. MS Money

Well, I wanted to use one of these, but it looks like I should use neither. I tried the budget features in each application and neither one is any good in my opinion. Why? Well the both do basically the same thing. They allow you to decide which categories are for expenses and which categories are for income. As your transactions are entered (electronically, manually or a little of both) it applies the transactions to budget. Sounds simple enough. Well, simple is the key word there.

If you look at your budget in the middle of the month you really don't know anything important. At least that is the way it is for me. My wife gets paid at the end of the month. There is no way to tell either program this. We apply my wife's paycheck on the last day of the month to the next month's bills. This HAS to be a common thing. And we pay our mortgage and a number of big bills at the beginning of the month. So Quicken and Money both show us un the red from day one. I would much rather see us in the black at the beginning of the month.

I can live with red zone if it were easier to breakdown the expenses and section. Unfortunately you can. I have put all my expenses into two categories, Regular Bills & Miscellaneous. Neither program will even show me these two section broken out from the other. This is really frustrating too, because each one let's you tell it which categories are used in the budget. Why can't they then show them broken out. Isn't that the point.

All I want is the budget to show how much money I have spent in each category for the month compared to how much I have budgeted for the category. So, if I budget $5000 for all my bills (including mortgage, car payments, utilities, groceries, etc.) and $1000 for other things (like dinning out, birthday gifts, pizza night, mall shopping, etc.), I should be able to easily see the amounts spent in each of these categories at a quick glance. The idea is to know when to spot spending on miscellaneous items when we run out of budgeted money. The reason for showing both categories "side by side" is so I can see at a glance if my regular bills are low. If gas prices are low we may have more money from the regular bills section that could be used in the miscellaneous section.

Anyway, I would like to tell you which program to use, but I can't. Neither one does what I want.

Both are excellent at importing bank statements and reasonably quick at letting you confirm those entries. However, due to the issues I mentioned last month with my credit union's new logon procedures I would have to go with MS Money. Why? Because just after I posted last month's article Money started working with my credit union. Quicken still can't log in to my credit union directly and requires me to download and import a Web Connect file manually. The problem there is the dates. I would have to keep track of the dates when I download the Web Connect files since I have to enter the start and end dates on my credit union's web site.

So for the moment I am using MS Money, because it directly downloads transactions. I am going to use March to decide if I will do double entry into the budget spreadsheet I created. In fact, I think I should share that with you all. I am going to make a stripped down version of my spreadsheet and post it here. I will explain how it works and what you would need to do to make use of it yourself.

Until next month the banking software saga continues.

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Conclusion

I have all the drivers to install Vista on my Toshiba laptop. I also have a copy of Office 2007 I received as a MSDN event. I am going to try doing an upgrade of Windows XP to Windows Vista. I have read that this should work quite well. Of course I can't leave it a that. After testing the upgrade I will reformat the hard drive and do a clean install. I will have to backup my laptop first. Hopefully I will have that to report next month.

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