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28th December
written by Andres Vargas

Small company with 50 to 100 Gb of Data? Scrap the server and go to Dropbox!

I always encourage users to consolidate their network around a server. It usually reduces maintenance costs and allows for centralized management of antivirus, updates, policies and backups among others. As always, there comes the time when you are forced to challenge your own beliefs and look into the possibility of doing exactly the opposite of what you normally do. In the case of the server, my first time was some years ago when dealing with a problem client. They were a tiny insurance agency with an absolutely prehistoric IBM server that should have died some 5 years before we started servicing them. For 3 years, we tried to explain to them the dangers of their situation without any luck and they simply refused to buy a new server. One day, my boss came up to me and gave me the order: decommission the server. Get all users off the domain and shut down the old fellow. After 15 minutes of me whining and complaining, I finally realized she was right! They did not need a server! For 3 years it had been us and not them the ones who had been mistaken! They worked fine on a peer-to-peer network ever since. All client data was stored online and for the most part they just downloaded PDFs and printed them. We then used their budget towards redundant Internet connection and better workstations.

This event triggered a much more client-centered way of approaching problems, where I really focused on what a business’ needs are and then developed around them to make sure IT was a support tool in reaching their objectives and not an objective in itself. One day I even shut down my own server at home and replaced it for an inexpensive Lacie NAS device! That year I must have saved a couple hundred dollars in the electrical bill alone. The next logical step, would have been to get rid of the NAS device and store my files online. Except here, I was somewhat reluctant… I asked myself the same question my clients would ask me: What if the Internet is down? How will I access my files?

Several years went by without me finding a good answer to this, until my wife showed me Dropbox. She was using it for an online collaborative work at school and it caught my attention. If it was capable of handling her 7 Gb videos, why wouldn’t it be able to handle my tiny excel files? I opened a free account and in no time, I had moved all my documents there! It is basically a combination of online and locally stored files, which serve a dual purpose of backup and synch between computers. It also doubles as a sharing system, virtually replacing and extending the NAS! It is cross platform, meaning it runs on my PC, Mac and Linux boxes. And did I mention I just use the free version?

For those of you who remember the Windows 95 “Briefcase” you will know how easy it was to throw documents there from the network drive, go home and work on them and the next morning have them synch into the network again. They later replaced it with the “Offline files” concept which from my experience simply does not work. It takes too long to synch when logging on and off and there is always the risk that the files you need did not get copied to your laptop (which you realize when you start working at the hotel in Tokyo…).

In many cases, Dropbox can be the perfect replacement for this. Many of my clients, use mainly word and excel files and store many documents in their email. Since the email is stored on their servers or ISP, I wont go into this part (which warrants a whole other posting on how NOT to use our email…). Most small companies do hot have more than 50 Gb of documents, so a basic Dropbox account could do fine for the whole office and for $120 a year, there is no cheaper way to have your documents always available and backed up!

Dropbox is faster than a NAS in most cases, because the files are stored locally on your computer and as soon as the file is modified, it is uploaded to the Dropbox server. When you work off the Network drive, you are going through your Ethernet, which will always be slower than working locally. It is so efficient, you can even edit video there (although you should not render to your Dropbox!).

Dropbox files are always available, because they are local. Even if the internet goes out, all members can continue to work on their local copies. If a computer’s Hard drive crashes, you can always log into another and configure your Dropbox account in under 5 minutes. Your files will immediately start to download to the new PC.

Accidentally deleted a file or overwrote it? Just right click on the icon, go to the Dropbox website and restore a previous copy! Sure beats calling the IT department and putting in last nights tape!

Microsoft and Mac have their versions of Dropbox, but they both have the problem they only work in MS and Mac! Never mind Linux.. Apple uses .Mac and Microsoft introduced Live Mesh. Same concept, but none are cross platform. Dropbox seems to work perfectly well on all my systems.

Yep, sometimes it is better to shut down the old server and never replace it again….

10th December
written by Andres Vargas

It’s a week before the end of semester at NYU and I get a call from my wife. Her good friend just had an accident and his laptop is dead. The repair shop he took it to, told him the hard drive is dead and all information is lost! PANIC!!

As my dad used to say: “When your daughter tells you she’s pregnant, it’s no time to talk about birth control. It’s time to give the baby a name!”. In this case, it was no time to discuss backups, but to help our friend pass his semester and present in the final show.

The repair shop has recommended professional data recovery sites, which start at $500 to just look at the drive and the retrieval process can go up to $2,000 for a single drive (way more if it is a RAID array!). This is clearly out of the budget for most students. So he picked up his laptop from the repair shop and brought it over. I pulled out the hard drive and returned the PC to him, so he could get a new hard drive and start setting up Windows again.

Over the years, I learned that hard drives are in fact not as fragile as you are led to believe. It is true that dropping it will break it, and removing the screws and opening it will void the warranty and most likely damage it. What nobody tells you is that these two acts can actually help you when the drive is already broken! Yes, hitting it and opening it up! It must have been more than 10 years ago, that I saw a service tech grab a drive and smack it against the table with a firm blow. He immediately connected it and to my surprise the drive worked for 5 minutes. Enough to recover the financial information from a company off the drive and earn him a bottle of wine from the owner of this company.

It was several years later, when I got my cousin’s hard drive in a FedEx that I went for dissecting a dead drive. I had tried all the steps: connect it to an external USB, internal IDE, freezing it, letting it heat up and of course smacking it. Nothing worked, the drive was beyond trunkslamer tech. So I went ahead and opened it in hopes of getting some nice, shinny souvenirs to hang in my X-mas tree. As I opened it, a small piece fell out, and the drive head moved to the park position! The head was actually jammed. I quickly connected the drive and to my surprise it started spinning again! Somehow the little piece that was no longer part of the system had broken off and jammed the head. The drive was severely damaged anyways due to the strain of the head so it only spun for 5 minutes before shutting down. I let it cool down and repeated the process. During two weeks, I recovered bits and pieces until I rebuilt his data.

I was so intrigued by a drive working with the cover off, that I actually opened a good but extremely old hard drive I had lying around to see how long it could work after removing the cover. I used it for several years to demonstrate to clients how a drive worked. I gave it away to an aspiring tech before I ever got a bad cluster.

During several years we got to do some amazing data recoveries at the shop, by swapping controller boards, swapping the platters into good drives and even replacing a burnt resistor on the electronics of a drive! Never mind all the un-deletes and format recoveries, which tend to be less glorious in tech terms, but as rewarding to the client.

Today once again, I had to get to the point of popping the hood of my friend’s drive to figure out what was wrong. I found that the impact had bent the drive heads onto the platter and caused the head to get stuck to the platter. This of course caused a big scratch on the platter, but only in a spot, meaning the other %99.9 of the platter was probably OK. If the heads could be unbent to not hit the platter again, it might work.

There is no better feeling that the one that comes when the drive spins back up and the system detects it! You feel a rush, because you know you only have a couple of minutes before the damaged head will give in and the whole thing will die for good. I knew which was the most important folder, so I started by that one. As soon as it finished copying I knew my day had been worth getting up! The drive lived for another 10 minutes, before the head hit the scratch on the platter and stopped reading. By this time I had retrieved all of the important data and was only copying trivial information.

It is times like this that you think that all is lost, that the most extreme measures can be taken. You do things you would have never considered doing and you take a last leap of faith to try to save your data. Sometimes when all is lost, you truly find something way more valuable.

8th December
written by Andres Vargas

There is nothing I can think of more overwhelming than choosing a hosting company where to host your site. There are literally thousands of companies competing for your business and they all claim to be the best. So where do you start? You could begin by reading reviews, comparing on sites or plain googling your way around. All these will be time consuming and the results will most likely be inconclusive and overwhelming. So what now? Let an expert do the testing and follow his advice!!

Over the past decade, I’ve had to deal with hundreds of hosting companies for my clients and could tell you a load of horror stories including inept helpdesk, hours on hold, DNS screw-ups, lost files, etc. When the service was good, clients where usually overpaying. Many just went with their ISP, who had sold them on an “all included” package that really did not suit their needs. I myself once had to email the president of the company that hosted my site directly because I could not get past his helpdesk staff while my site was down!

One day, my boss gave me a task I was familiar with: re-design the company website and moving it a new hosting company: Hostmonster. Half an hour after I stared working, I stormed into his office and shouted: “Where did you find these guys? They are awesome!!” He just laughed and replied: “I guess that’s why I’m the boss…”. That night I was moving my site over.

A couple of years later, I have migrated my more than a dozen working sites to Hostmonster and I continue to migrate my client’s sites every time I have the chance. I even promote them on my Website, because I want only the best for my clients (and all those who are not, but visit my site or Blog).

So what made me such a radical adept to this company?

1)    Price: for $5.95 a month I am hosting over 12 production sites and over 2 dozen development sites!!! This is less than $72 year! I was paying $14.95 for just one site before, so I will let you do the math…. One of my clients would pay his ISP over $300 a year for his “all included” package. You can imagine how happy he is now. Add to this unlimited everything and it is just incredible!

2)    Services offered: This was definitely what made me rush into my boss’ office that day. Their control panel had every single service I ever wished for as a developer. Most users will never use a tenth of this, but it is always good to know that if your web designer asks you if your hosting company supports this or that, the answer will always be: YES!

3)    Reliability: Never seen it go down. Never been unable to access the control panel or my site. Emails are always in my inbox in seconds. Do I need to say more?

4)    Control: As a developer and manager of so many sites, I need control over every step of the process. I found all aspects of my domains, databases, DNS and sites are manageable from their control panel, thus avoiding unnecessary calls to support help lines or email requests.

5)    Flexibility: I get what I need for all of my sites, but some clients need more horsepower, SSL, Shell access, etc. In these cases, their service has been easily expanded to suit their needs. Also, with the use of SimpleScripts, my clients can easily (and for free!)  have access to such varied applications as Blogs, CRM, CMS, E-commerce and even E-learning portals.

6)    Support: I can maintain sites hosted on Hostmonster for a fraction of the cost of the clients who host their sites elsewhere. But even us “experts” sometimes need help from an even greater expert. The times I have had to contact them, I have been quickly greeted by a professional, excellently trained individual, who is NOT outsourced and has been able to help me in minutes (thus saving the client money once again).

Migrating your hosting is not always an easy process, so I recommend letting a professional handle the process. If I have succeeded in convincing you on saving money and moving towards a better service, then hopefully you can also start taking advantage of my experience and excellent track record. Contact me for a free assessment of your current Internet presence and I will be happy to guide you on the right path for you.