11 November 2005

Random Ramblings: Backing Up Your Thumb Drive

I have most recently become the proud owner of a 1 GB thumb drive. I finally splurged on a biggie because I keep so much stuff on it. For example, I have John Haller's Portable Firefox, Portable Thunderbird, Portable Open Office and Portable FileZilla on it. (In fact, I have FIVE email programs resident on the thumb: Portable Thunderbird, Eudora, TheBat, PocoMail, and Sylpheed because I'm doing some SSL mail testing at the moment.) I also have my todo list on it, my fnancial data (encrypted of course), and the website I created and constantly maintain. If I could figure out how to put my blogging software (i.e. Thingamablog) on it and make it work, I would do so as well, but there are still some technical details to work out first.

It didn't take long for me to become fearful about what would happen if my thumb drive died. Granted, thumb drives are lot sturdier than other removable media, but then they can still die. I'm just not sure when this will happen because I haven't used a thumb drive long enough to find out. Thus, I soon wrote a quickie batch file that I run once a day that syncs everything on the thumb drive to my hard disk.

Of course, I'm the easy one. My wife manages to have (at current count) FIVE thumb drives and presumably she has less time and/or inclincation to make sure her thumb drives are adequately backed up. I finally decided to do something about this. But ugh, five batch files for five thumb drives? What if she gets more drives, and what if she makes a mistake and chooses the wrong batch file, and copies the wrong thumb data overwriting another thumb's backup?

While waiting for a red light to change in traffic recenty, I figured it all out. The result is a single, generic and customizable batch file that can handle all five thumbs (or more, with some minor tweaking). It's nothing fancy, but it does work. This is what it looks like:

  @echo off
  set THUMBD=f:\
  set BAKDIR=d:\thumb\
  set MARKER=none
  if exist %THUMBD%_black_ set MARKER=black
  if exist %THUMBD%_white_ set MARKER=white
  if exist %THUMBD%_blue_  set MARKER=blue
  if %MARKER%==none goto nomarker
  robocopy %THUMBD% %bakdir%%MARKER%\ /mir
  echo The %MARKER% thumb drive has been backed up ...
  goto end
  echo Thumb drive not recognized - nothing backed up
  set MARKER=
  set THUMBD=
  set BAKDIR=
  @echo off

There are a few things you have to do to make this work. First, you have to edit lines 2 and 3 to indicate what drive letter your thumb drive appears as and where the backups should be saved (don't forget the trailing backslash!). In my wife's case, each thumb drive is differentiated by color, so I have a line for each color (lines 5-7). Second, I have to create/copy a "marker" file called _Black_, _White_, and _Blue_ into the root directory of each thumb drive. I also made these files Read-Only to help prevent/reduce the chances of their being accidentally deleted. Third, you have to avail yourself of a program from Microsoft called "Robocopy" (i.e. "Robust Copy Utility"). This is a very useful DOS backup program that's part of Microsoft's Windows Resource Kit. A version for Windows 2003/XP can be downloaded for free from here. (Incidentally, this version of Robocopy also works under Windows 2000.)

If you try running Robocopy without any parameters, you will be innundated with a whole slew of options. Not surprisingly, this program isn't meant for use by home users, but it CAN be a network administrator's best friend. In fact, I use it every night to backup several gigabytes worth of data on our file server at work. Anyway, I'm only using the /MIR option which creates a "mirror" of a folder elsewhere. Or put it another way, it synchronizes the data on the thumb drive to a backup folder on your hard disk.

09 November 2005

Random Ramblings: FTP Clients

Over the past decade, I've really only used two FTP clients. If I'm on Windows machine and want a GUI interface, I invariably grab Ipswitch's free/light WS_FTP LE, a program that has been around for ages. I've even bought the commercial version of WS_FTP over the years, but I've always gravitated back to the free version. I especially like the fact that I can carry and use it anywhere I go simply by copying it to any portable media large enough to hold it (only 1MB needed). No re-installation is required once you've done the initial installation.

More often than not though, I tend to just fire up command line ftp, usually the DOS version but also the Linux version when I'm using such a system. Command line ftp is actually where I started, so even though it may seem clunky, it's like an old friend to me and my fingers seem to be able to remember the most basic commands I need to use (get, put, mget, mput, ascii, binary, dir, prompt, etc.).

Just today though, while I was visiting John Haller's website, I caught sight of his most recent "Portable App": Portable FileZilla. I've never used FileZilla before, but given its open source heritage, I felt it was worth a try. And given it's a portable app, I can carry/use/copy it to whatever computer I use just as easily as with WS_FTP. My opinion? Well, its interface its a bit messy compared to WS_FTP, but I suppose I can get used to it. One thing I especially like is the fact that it can simulatenously download in multiple streams, which seems to speed things up. Shades of PnP!

I'm not 100% sure yet if it will replace WS_FTP LE, but given that it's only a slightly larger 3.5MB, it's tentatively found a home on my thumb drive. Only time will tell if it succeeds in kicking out the original tenant.

04 November 2005

Post Database: Full Bore DSL Speeds?

In the November 2, 2005 issue of Post Database, James Hein wondered why he wasn't getting the full bandwidth that he was "being charged for" (or more precisely, the 2.5 Mbps that his employer signed up for). The explanation lies in a practice called "sharing". Unbeknownst to many, you the customer are rarely alone in using the DSL circuit that you signed up for. Quite the contrary, more often than not you will be sharing your (sic) circuit with a dozen or more people.

Occasionally, but not always, ISP's will issue a disclaimer to this effect. For example, Ji-Net states this (grammar and comprehensibility notwithstanding): "Package DSL has been shared bandwidth. The speed may reduce by 10%-20% as a result of the OVERHEAD from the IP or traffic in the Internet".

Sharing is usually cited as a ratio. Most corporate packages implement sharing at about 1:5 to 1:10; i.e. 1 link shared by 5-10 customers. For home packages, this ratio is much greater and can range anywhere between 1:20 and more than 1:100. I won't name names here, but I suggest you ask the sales/customer service department of your ISP since there's no easy way to determine this ratio otherwise. Obviously, it's not something that ISP's wish to advertise because of its negative implications. Besides, keeping mum probably gives them flexibility in adjusting sharing ratios at a later date as well.

This sharing may explain why DSL prices began plummeting and why throughput could be suffering as a result. To be fair though, you get what you pay for. It's hardly likely that any ISP could make money providing you with a dedicated link while charging less than Baht 1,000 a month. Also, before you get too indignant, be advised that this sharing practice is hardly unique to Thailand.

Finally, in light of the above, I would suggest that you take into consideration more than just speed and cost while evaluating/comparing DSL packages. In addition, I would also look at: a) link speed/# shared users (a measure of performance), and b) link speed/# shared users/monthly fees (a measure of performance per unit cost).

26 October 2005

Random Ramblings: HP Color LaserJet 2600n

Last week, I picked up an HP Color LaserJet 2600n from Panthip Plaza for use at the office. This is an honest to goodness COLOR LASER printer priced at a surprisingly low Baht 17,000 (+/- depending on which store you buy it from). I started this search months earlier, when my options were: a) a mid-range HP inkjet printer (cheap, costly ink, quality limitations), or b) an HP Color LaserJet 3550n (much, much more expensive, still costly ink, but much better quality).

As we network all our printers as a matter of policy, the 3550n was my preferred choice, even though it costed about Baht 40-50,000 Baht. But what I didn't like about it was that it used an external USB type JetDirect device (I much prefer internal ones) and that it was huge (about the size of a mini-refrigerator). And of course, there was the cost of the ink.

The advent of the 2600n changed things a bit. It's MUCH smaller, comes with an internal JetDirect device, uses less electricity, and of course, it's much cheaper. But then, it's slower (8 ppm vs 16 ppm) and has a lighter duty cycle (35,000 vs 45,000 pages/month). Probably worse of all, it's a "host based" printer. This means that it doesn't have a built-in printing language and the print image must be generated on your computer. This will slow down printing a bit and puts greater demands on your computer. But at least Windows and Mac drivers are available to do this; Linux users are currently left out in the cold.

One more cost issue. The ink cartridges - there four: black, cyan, magenta and yellow - last only about 2,000 full pages each and cost in excess of Baht 3,000 each. If you ever have to replace all four cartridges at once, you'll be paying 75% of an entire new e printer. My buddy Petch half-kiddingly suggests that we buy a new printer whenever we run out ink. This may sound absurd on the surface, but there's some truth to it. Sigh, single-shot, throw-away color laser printers?

22 October 2005

Random Ramblings: Blosxom

When I transmorphed Wobble into its present blog format last year, I shopped around for blogging software that met my needs/fancy. Since I had my own domain, I chose to host it entirely on my own server and not to use the likes of Blogger or similar services. And not being terribly familiar with SQL (upon which most blogging systems depended), I eventually ended up with Thingamablog, a freeware, SQL-less blogging system.

While Thingamablog has worked pretty well for me so far, one thing I DON'T like about it is that I can't carry it around with me; or put another way, I'm not sure know HOW to carry it around with me. Every now and then when I'm away from my home computer (where Thingamablog Central lives), I get the urge to make a quick fix to a existing post or to upload something new. I can't seem to do that right now. The best I can do is to write any changes/additions to a text file and then paste it into my main Thingablog installation when I get home.

Not that I was looking around for a replacement, but I think I may have hit upon something that MIGHT ONE DAY replace Wobble's Thingamablog engine. Introducing Blosxom. Like Thingamablog, Blosxom is SQL-less and open source. What's different about it is that all posts are simply text files (well, maybe not just PLAIN text files since they can be liberally HTML imbued), that only need to be uploaded individually and not combined with other posts like with Thingamablog.

I haven't had the time to actually try the program out yet, but a proof-of-concept test IS expected before year end. The amazing thing about Blosxom is that it is less than 150 lines of Perl code. This is not suggest that it is simplistic and limited - far from it. Blosxom's plug-in architecture and the existence of hundreds of plug-ins allow it to operate just like any other blogging software on the block. We shall see ...

21 October 2005

Random Ramblings: OpenOffice v2

Well, the official release of OpenOffice v2.0 is finally out. As I had been using the v2.0 beta for quite some time now, I wasn't expecting much difference. But frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by the speed of the final release (the removal of debugging code probably had something to do with this). From an uncached standing start, Microsoft Word 2000 took about 5 seconds to load on my humble computer versus 7 seconds for OO Writer (with QuickStart pre-loaded). Admittedly slower, but not terribly significant IMHO. Meanwhile, Word took only one second to load a .DOC file versus 7 seconds for OO Writer. This sizeable difference can be explained by the fact that OO Writer had to "import" the file first. When I saved the .DOC file to an OO native .ODT format, the loading time dropped to about 2 seconds. Again, slower but nothing that would cause me to tear my hair out.

Maybe this will get my buddy Petch more inclined to use OO - he complains about how slow it is to load - but I doubt it. I suspect he'll look for another excuse not to use it. For the record though, in our computer room, OO is installed on all of our computers except for ONE - HIS, where MS Office still lingers. This has more to do with the fact that sometimes we REALLY need to run MS Office and less on kindness on my part. But since I have at least one OO encrypted file that he has to access, he's forced to use OO every now and then anyway.

I must admit though that I still use Microsoft Office 2000 on my day-to-day computer at home - although it has LONG shared space with an OpenOffice installation. This is simply an "if it ain't broke, don't fix/change it" situation, and it's one reason why I never moved up to Office XP or 2003. Nor do I plan to move to the next release of Office either, EVEN if MS finally decides to support OpenDocument. And EVEN if they decide to stop using activation - something I terribly detest. Hell should freeze over before they backtrack on this though.