Introduction to Linux

Picture of Linux mascot
Linux mascot “Tux”

As a tech worker, one of the skills that is a must is ability to use Linux. I won’t give you a walkthrough on how to write your first command or how to install it. However, I will talk about what do you need to know about Linux before using it. It is because Linux is not just an operating system. It is philosophy and an interesting story in a form of an operating system. 

What is Linux? 

Linux is an open source operating system created by Linus Torvalds for x86 architecture and then for other architectures. Linux is greatly seen and used in data centres due to its performance, stability and flexibility. 

Open Sauce ?!! 

No not open sauce but open source. In software development world there are two different philosophies. The first believes no one should ever see how a certain application is made and nothing of its source code is open to public. This philosophy is called closed source or proprietary code.  The other school believes that the source code must be open for public and they have the modify the code for their need, as long as they give credit to the original author. 

Linux History

In 1991 when Linus Torvalds was still as student he found out that there isn’t a free and open sourced operating system that available for the public. So, he decided to build a new operating system that free and opensource. 

Linux in depth… slightly

Over the years Linus is pretty much different than what it was in 1991. Also, due to availability of its code for the masses, there are many flavors of Linux. Each flavor is called a distribution. Each distribution differs from other by having different collection of application that are added to the system.  

Distributions are split into two families; RedHat and Debian. Each family has its own characteristics. RedHat is a commercial Distribution that is free but you have to pay for it for its support. RedHat is also known for its stability and production ready. However, its update cycle is usually slower than the Debian family. Debian family is entirely free and tend to update every 6 months. Moreover, it is equipped with the latest technologies and applications. 

Hemo’s Take

There isn’t the best distribution of Linux, because each distro has its benefits. As a result, you should choose the distro that matches your needs. Thus, I advise you to play with various distros until best fit is found and chosen.

Consumer Hardware VS Server Hardware

One of the mistakes some novice IT pros do is suggesting using high-end consumer hardware instead of Server grade hardware. They suggest using high-end consumer grade hardware because it has better performance with the price range. However, price tag is just a factor in calculating overall cost of a certain asset. In this post, we will see why server-grade hardware is more beneficial than high-end consumer hardware.

 

Designed to last longer and more reliable!!

Server hardware is designed to have a longer time span that consumer hardware, because servers in general stay in production for a longer time than consumer hardware. Moreover, servers are designed to be on 24/7, unlike personal machines that most people turn them off for hours daily.

Mean time between failure or MTBF is a unit that measure the average time a component will take to failure under optimal operation conditions. As an example, according to western digital WD Gold MTBF is 2.5 million hours.  On the other hand, consumer hard drives do not come with MTBF, however they tend to fail after 500 thousand hours.

Any enterprise will have more profit if they used their equipment for a longer time and less down time, because their ROI will be higher.

Fault tolerant

The other reason IT pro choose servers grade hardware over consumer grade hardware is its high fault tolerant and redundancy. As an example, servers come with two PSUs, to prevent downtime because of a dead PSU.

Fault tolerance allows devices to run even if one or more of its components is faulty. As a result, no service will be interrupted and sysadmins will be happy.

Support

Support provided to server grade hardware is often better than consumer grade hardware. Server grade hardware comes with better support packages, such as 24/7 support and on-site equipment replaced done by support representative. Moreover, vendor dedicate a certain specialist to large customers to ensure the representative is familiar with production environment and provide faster and better service.

 

Hemo’s Take

“It depends” is what is answer should be. As a system administrator, you should evaluate the value of each service and decide does it worth the support it comes with or not. Also think about the time and resource wasted from the down time.

Server 101: SAN and NAS

Storage is one of the topics that is done differently in the corporate world than home environment. In SOHO data is usually stored in directly attached hard drives and in a device in a device over the network using a NAS. On the other side, corporate usually depend on something called a SAN to store their corporate data.

NAS?

Image of a NAS
Synology DS1511+ NAS – Courtesy of Synology

 

NAS stands for Network Attached Storage, which is basically generally a device over the network that is used to host and share information over the network. The device can serve multiple services or dedicated for file storage.

NAS is a file level storage. File level storage mean that the NAS and the client exchange files between them over the network, just like when a file download from a website. Moreover, with file level storage files are usually stored in a fixed location with a fixed storage capacity. As a result, expanding storage capacity is usually not possible and always require some downtime.

There are many protocols used for files storage such as SMB and AFP. Most NAS devices nowadays support and use SMB as its main file exchange protocol.

SAN?

 

A picture of a SAN Component
emc VNXe1600 SAN – Courtesy of EMC

SAN stands for Storage Area Network and it is a network of multiple devices connected to serve a single purpose …storage. The network contains fiber matrix, storage controller and even pools of blazing fast hard drives.

Unlike NAS, SAN uses block level storage. In a nutshell, block level storage means that communication between the SAN and the client is treated like a directly attached hard drive into a motherboard. As a result, SAN mounts are visible as a local hard drive on clients.

There are two main protocols for SAN: iSCSI (Internet Small Computer Systems Interface) and FC (Fibre Channel). Most SAN nowadays use FC is built specifically for SAN and it is faster than iSCSI, but it is more expensive.

Why SAN over NAS?

Large enterprises use SAN over NAS for multiple reasons. First, SAN performance is higher than most NAS devices, due to the way storage area networks are built. Second, SAN allow easily to modify storage allocation of each storage mount. Also, the mount can reside on single hard drive, single virtual hard drive and event on two different building! Third, Storage are networks are real fault tolerant if built correctly. HP has proofed that a SAN can be bullet proof literally in an old TV commercial!!! The commercial can be viewed bellow.

 

Hemo’s Take

It is alright if you are not very familiar with SAN, as it is considered as big boys toys. Myself, I don’t have the permission to work with it yet, but one day both of us will work with it 😊

Automating Operating System Installation

Screenshot of MDT
Courtesy of Microsoft

Operating system installation is one of the most basic and simple process done by sysadmins or help-desk people, yet it is one of the most expensive processes for any business, because it wastes IT staff time and employees time. Besides being expensive and time consuming, it is also very repetitive and prone to errors.

The problem

Let’s image the following, your business decided to build an onsite training center at work with capacity of 25 trainees. The new center needs a new machine for each trainee in the center. Moreover, these machines come without an operating system, because you already have an enterprise license from Microsoft. Accomplishing this task will keep the entire team busy for the entire day!  By the end of the day, you will have a dead tired team who spent an entire day on a single task, and training team who were idling due to uninstalled machines.

The traditional way the team is doing this task is by grabbing an installation disc and fill the prompted instruction, until the end. During this process, the staff member must be next to the machine to answer the required questions. The actual process can take up to an hour per machine.

The biggest problem with operating system installation is not the time it consumes, but the IT team might have 25 machines with 25 different configurations. Such difference in configuration may lead into future problems in the future.

Such process can be enhanced by complying two main principles. First, Automating the processes as much as possible. Second, unifying all the hardware and software as much as possible. Operating system installation automation complies these principles.

Automation?

In a nutshell, operating system installation is done using through running a PXE server, and creating a proper answer machine file which is used answer question asked during installation.

Available solutions

They are different solutions used for operating system automation. Microsoft suggests Microsoft Deployment Toolkit to automate their operating systems. Red Hat released Kickstart to automate its operating systems.

Hemo’s Take

Cloning is also a solution, but I suggest not to use it. The master image of the clones needs to be up to date to have all the chnages. Also, SA needs to run sysprep to change GUID and SID of each clone. Finally, cloning hides the history of the process. As a result, the SA does not know installation history.

Server 101: 3 2 1 Backup

3 2 1 Backup Srategy illustrative yet unimportant image
Coutesy of BackBlaze

In May 2017, a massive cyber-attack caused by WannaCry ransomware. Such attack has increased the awareness of the importance of backups. However, many system administrator, especially novice ones faced the consequences of   improper backup strategies that are never tested. Such strategies mostly lead into a huge chunk of missing or useless data. Fortunately, there are  a set of recommended tested strategies that insure no data loss as much as possible. One of these strategies is what is known as 3-2-1 Strategy Back up.

 

The number three means that each file must be three copies of each file. Moreover, it also means that all files are identical and have exact check sum value. Check summing is a calculation done using certain algorithms, that ensures integrity of data were not changed after sending them into a medium.

3-2-1 Backup

Three copies are recommended instead of three, because in some scenarios even the backup files might fail. An example of such scenarios is when a system is hit with a malware that encrypt all files attached. Different media is recommended because each medium has a different

Second, number 2 means these copies are save in at least two different back up media. These media could be a conventional hard disk drive, a tape, or even an optical disk such as DVD or Blu-ray. Moreover, cloud storage can be considered as a media, even though it uses one of the previously mentioned media.

Last, number 1 means that at least one copy must be offsite. It is advised that the offsite location is at least 25 KM away from the original copy. Offsite copies are critical when original location was affected by a catastrophic incident such as a flood, fire and earth quakes. Moreover, physical security should be implemented and assured when offsite location is run and manage by corporate itself.

Hemo’s Take

No matter how many copies do you have of a file if these copies are not identical and corrupted. Thus, after ensuring that files are copied as mentioned above, ensure that are the identical and retrievable every six months. You really do not want to get back to a backup and nothing is there.

Server 101: RAID under the scope

Fault tolerance is one of the concepts that is put into consideration when designing an infrastructure. In a nutshell fault tolerance is the ability for a device or a system to operate, even when it is faulty. One of the technologies that is based on the concept is fault tolerance is RAID.

What is RAID?

RAID which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Drives is technology that allow multiple hard disk drives to work as a single entity. As a result, characteristics of these hard drives change based on its levels up used and it is mostly implemented in servers. There are multiple setups exists, but in this post, the main three RAID levels will be covered. The main three levels are level 0, level 1 and level 5.

RAID 0

RAID 0
Data distribution in RAID 0 (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

RAID level 0 or known as RAID zero or striping is a set up consists of two or more hard drives, where data is spit across all hard drives as seen in the picture above. Such setup allows data to be read and written times faster than the specs of each hard drive. However, in case of disk failure or data corruption in a hard drive, all data will be about useless.

RAID 1

Data Distribution in RAID 1
Data Distribution in RAID 1 (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

RAID level 1 or known as mirroring or RAID 1 is a setup consists of two or more hard drives, where data is duplicated across all hard drives. As a result, data remain safe if a one hard drive is intact. On the other side, RAID 1 has its share of disadvantages. First, despite the amount of hard drives are added to the setup, only the capacity of the smallest hard drive will be used.  Second, RAID 1 doesn’t provide any additional performance than standalone hard drive.

RAID 5

Data Distribution in RAID 5
Data Distribution in RAID 5 ( Courtesy of Wikimedia)

RAID 5 that is also known as Striping with distributed sets is a setup consists of three or more hard drives. Unlike other levels, RAID 5 mechanism saves the piece of data on a hard drive and keep certain calculations on others and these calculations enable data to be recovered. Due to its mechanism RAID 5 provides continuous operation, even with a failed drive in the pool. Moreover, these calculations can lead toward a faster operation.

Hemo’s Take

RAID is a fun topic to discuss. IT pros can argue which RAID is the best RAID. Also, another argument can take place regards software based RAID versus dedicated RAID controller based RAID setup. Other storage experts might argue that RAID 5 should not be used and RAID 6 should be used instead. To be honest, what really matter is to know why and where use to use each RAID level. What matters is which RAID level is the most beneficial and most suitable for the requirements.

Server 101: Server Rack Components

A lot of equipment is installed in server racks besides servers. These server devices serve different purposes such as cable management and energy supply. In this post, we will discover these devices and learn more about them and why are they used.

PDU

Front Side of a PDU
-Courtesy of gdftech

In short, PDU which stands for power distribution unit is an expensive power strip on steroid. So, it can be defined as a special type of power strips that distributes electricity to server and other devices. Moreover, they are designed to be efficient, safe and able to distribute sufficient energy to all server racks. PDUs excel when multiple three-phase power sources are used together to power server rack equipment.

UPS

Rack Mounted UPS (Courtesy of Eaton)
Rack Mounted UPS (Courtesy of Eaton)

UPS which stands for Uninterrupted Power Supply is a device that either placed in a server rack or in a separate location and it is serves two purposes. First, it contains a battery pack that feeds server room equipment during a power outage for a finite time and prevents any data corruption due to power outage. Second, Uninterrupted Power Supplies cleans the electricity that feeds the devices. As a result, devices will work better and prevent power related faults. Modern smart UPSs are capable to notify system administrators about power outages and shut down devics safely when the batter is out to run out of charge.

KVM Switch

USB Based KVM Switch
USB Based KVM Switch (Courtesy of D-Link)

KVM (Keyboard, video, Mouse) switch or known as KVM for short is a device that is used to allow a single mouse, keyboard and monitor screen to be used by multiple computers. Thus, less peripheral device in the server room, especially that most device are rarely accessed directly.

KVM can connect to devices in two different methods. First method is by using a USB and a video cables (VGA, HDMI or DVI) between each device and the KVM. The second method that is usually used by the higher end KVM switches is by depending on IP protocols to connect between the KVM and the devices i.e. using the current network infrastructure to connect remote machines to the KVM switch.

Patch Panel

Front and Read View of a Patch Panel
Front and Read View of a Patch Panel

One of the main concepts in network cable management is decoupling. Decoupling means in this case is separating between access switches and end device, by adding a patch device in between. Adding a patch panel helps network and system administrators to reassign network cables between different network devices easily.

Patch panels consist of two sides. First, the rear side which is used to connect between the end machines and the patch panel. Second, the front side which is used to connect between patch panels are network devices.

Hemo’s Take

In real life, server racks have more equipment than mentioned here such as NAS, Tape drives and even GPS-based NTP servers. However, these devices the most important and about no proper server rack is without them.

 

Small business IT consultancy: Requirement Gathering

Small Business Into Image
Courtesy of LinkedIn

Few days ago, a dear friend of mine asked me what does he need for his new small home professional production house. I took this opportunity to share with you how I will design his new IT infrastructure. The topic will be consists of a group of articles covers the updates in the project.

Production House X:

Information and requirement gathering is the first phase of planning for any new IT infrastructure. Each infrastructure is different that others. The difference between infrastructure designs are because factors such as total budget, maintenance requirements, future upgrade consideration, and the type of business.

Step 1: Do your homework

The first step into gather information and requirement is learning more about the field of the business.  Since Production House X is a production house that produces high quality corporate videos for different customers. Thus, I have built in hypothesis that the PHX needs a sophisticated file sharing server.  I presume that all their footage is large. As a result,  high-speed network is a must.

Step 2: Meeting

Second step is having a meeting with the client to learn more about his requirements and about his/her business. Start your meeting by asking the client basic question about the field of the business, what is a daily routine of it and how is it going so far. It is important to ask these question, so you can break the ice between you and the client if you do not know the client in person. Also, these questions show that you as a consultant is interested about the business and the client at the same time.

Next, it is important to ask question about the management of the business. I mean ask questions about what of roles is in the business and how many employees is in the business as an example. It is important to know about the managerial process, because from a security point of view, it is important to hide data from unauthorized personnel even within the same business.

Finally, start to ask the technical questions such as what technology do you currently use, what are the issues the business are currently facing, and what type of data do your business generate. It is important to ask a lot about the type the data is generating daily, because data is the most critical asset of any business.

 

Server 101: Shapes of servers

Servers come in different shapes. Today their shapes will be looked and discussed.

What shapes do you take Mr. Server??

Servers can take three main shapes: tower, blade and rack mount. Servers come in shapes for multiple reasons such as cost, power efficiency and noise.

Rack Mount:

shape of rack mount server.
Courtesy of Dell Inc.

Rack mounted shape is most conventional shape servers comes in and it allows data center technicians to stack 3-4 physical servers  on top of each other in a server rack. It is more seen in the small to medium businesses that require multiple servers but no more than five. However, rack mounted servers are generally more expensive than other tower servers and it is noisier than tower ones.

Tower:

Tower server shape
Courtesy of Dell Inc.

Tower shape is similar to desktop computer (Technically speaking our personal computers are not desktop computers, because desktop ones are the one that sit on top of desks like the old whitish ones). Small businesses tend to pick this shape over others, because it is more cost effective than others, especially if these businesses need one or two for all their operations. Thus, shape is recommended for them. Unlike most shapes, tower servers allow adding multiple regular 3.5 hard disk drives, that are more expensive. On the other side it takes more space than others.

 

Blade Servers:

A picture of a Blade Server
Courtesy of Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Blade shape  or blade servers are a form factor developed by IBM to create modular and efficient design that allow them stack as much physical servers as possible within a single server rack. Each module is called a blade. Despite its modular and efficient design, blade servers has its share of cons. These servers need high RPM fans, as a result they are noisy. Also, due to its compact size, ability to add expansion card is limited. Third, it is more expensive than others, with the same hardware inside.

Hemo’s Take

Recently, other forms are seen in server room. In home server rooms, laptops are used for its size, price and usage of laptop battery as a ghetto USP. In addition to laptops, System on Chips such as Raspberry Pi is implemented.

Server 101: What is a server

Tech workers spend most of their time either in server rooms or near them. However, not all of them know the ins and outs of server rooms. In this series server rooms will be discussed here. So, this topic will start with the most obvious question.

Group of server cabinets
Courtesy of ipzonecomputer

What is Server?

Many people think that servers are large, loud, expensive and hard to use machines. However, they thoughts are not true.  The definition of server is any device that provide any type of services to other machines on the same network and other network, because the term server is assigned to machines based on its relation to a certain service.

As a result, we see different types of “Computers” act as a server. We started to see microcomputers such as Raspberry Pis, and atom based computers act as server for clients who are waaay more powerful, more expensive and more difficult to use computers.

Servers serve different types of services. These services varies from serving a group of files to a different to managing user authentication and logging, to managing prints over a network. According to the service provided, system administrator choose the type of hardware that will serve the purpose and consume the least amount of power.

Hemo’s Take

Do not look at servers are as magical, difficult, expensive machines that working on them are rocket science. They are just like the machines that  we use at home, but with small  differences. Dealing with servers are just a nice journey into getting better at your job.

In the end remember, we the tech workers are supermen who do not wear  tight clothes 🙂