Thursday, August 19. 2010
I'm in the middle of an especially turbulent bout of interesting times right now. That this has kept me from posting is the least of my concerns. Much of my problems are due to those machines that a former boss -- actually, the VP of Software Development at my first engineering job -- insisted on calling the Confusers. I'm in a lull right now, temporary no doubt, so let me unpack this a bit.
I have had a dedicated server since 2003, originally at Rackshack, which eventually got sucked into a company that calls itself The Planet. I never got a lot of good out of it, and never got it to do a lot of the things I thought I'd like to do with a dedicated server, so it's sort of limped along for several years now -- on my long list of things to do. Finally, it fell down a couple weeks ago, so I started shopping for another one. Finally on Monday I ordered a new one from Hosting and Designs in Beaverton, OR. I got a faster machine (E8200 Quad Core), more memory (2GB vs. 1GB), a larger bandwidth allotment (2TB vs. 1TB), for less money, which I immediately threw away by adding cPanel/WHM in the hopes that it would finally put me ahead of the sysadmin curve. Also threw some money into the setup fee for a "Total Security Package" which is so effective that it has not only kept me from logging into the server, it's managed to keep H&D's technical team from fixing the problem. (Or something has, but I'm getting ahead of myself.) While shopping for this, I got some bad vibes from H&D: they were slow responding to questions; admitted they didn't have the "best ping times" and weren't using "Tier 1 providers"; their help desk tools were buggy, and their SSL certificate was self-signed (Firefox didn't like that); they don't provide DNS servers, and I didn't fully understand what that meant or how they figured I could work around it (still don't).
Anyhow, I didn't find anything else that looked better, and I had a slow, annoying burn from Planet, so I ordered their deal on Monday. They promised it up in 24-72 hours, and I was notified it was up mid-Wednesday -- about 48 hours, not fast, but OK. I tried logging in and the machine didn't like the password they gave me. After three tries it banned me. I filed an urgent ticket request, and 24 hours later the machine is still inaccessible (to me, at least). I've complained several times since then. (In fact, could complain again now, but I'm trying to chill out.) In the meantime I raised the DNS question, and got at first a completely evasive answer. When I challenged this, the reply was basically: that's your problem. I've spent a bit of time looking into workarounds -- supposedly they do work, otherwise how could H&D get away with this? -- but not being able to log in and configure my server I'm just guessing (or maybe hallucinating).
Meanwhile, another long-desired computer project has come in. I have a Linux machine that I set up in 1998 and is still the heart of my system. (I'm typing this on a much more powerful machine I built in 2007, although I'm actually just using it as an X-server for a laptop where emacs is running and storing files. But the old machine is the Internet firewall and router, and I've accumulated over 10 years of mail on it, as well as totally clogging its puny disks. The Red Hat Linux on it is ancient, the Mozilla browser doesn't know about certificates issued in the last 5-6 years, and the 512MB RAM is pretty much always overloaded into swap. The migration plan is to move all of its application purposes -- chiefly mail -- onto my other machine(s), and replace it with a small computer running a lightweight Linux firewall/router (like IPCop, or maybe a BSD-based one like pfSense). While shopping for the dedicated server, I got worked up one night and ordered the parts for the new router box.
I wanted something small and specialized. Looked at a lot of rackmount boxes which, despite the small height, are really pretty large and awkward (and expensive). I looked at a lot of boxes before I happened on the idea of a Micro-ITX motherboard with a low-powered Intel Atom CPU. I found an Intel board for $76.99 that should do nicely, then I found an Apex chassis with 250W power supply for a real cheap $38.99. Added 2GB RAM, a D-Link NIC so I'd have two ethernet ports. Could have gotten away with a smaller disk drive, but couldn't find one much cheaper than a 320GB Seagate, and added an ASUS DVD burner, mostly just to install the software. Whole thing came close to $250, about twice what an appliance router would cost, but still a pretty good deal. Put it all together yesterday. Makes a neat little package, smaller than a shoebox. Haven't fired it up yet, mostly because the big issues remain: what distro, and what are all the other things that have to happen to move the old machine out?
Copying the files off the old machine should be easy. Managed to NFS-mount its file systems onto my main machine. Mail would be tougher. Installed Thunderbird on the main machine. Previously had Evolution, but Thunderbird's a successor to the old Mozilla Mail I had been using, so I figured that would be easier. It wasn't: Thunderbird has some wizards for your mail server settings and to pick up old address books, mail, etc., none of which worked, let alone explained their failings. I did get the address book moved by exporting it, copying the file, and importing it (the only time the wizard actually let me select a file). Couldn't pick up any of the old mail, but I was able to manually work out the server settings, so now I can send and receive mail on the main machine.
I then tried installing another mailer, Claws, advertised as lightweight with good import features. I copied all of the old mailboxes, including my big Sent and Inbox files, to places and names I could keep track of, then started feeding them into Claws. It picked them up with only one problem: the old Inbox hadn't been compressed in a long while, so it still had about 30,000 deleted messages in it, all of them restored. (Other mailboxes may have the same problem, but I rarely delete from saved or sent mail.) So I deleted that, compressed the file, copied it, and imported it again, message count now down to 5000. Claws insisted that I set up its mail server settings, but let me get away with tom@localhost, so it's not competing with Thunderbird for the real mail.
Don't know whether I'll wind up using one or the other. For now, Claws manages my mail archive, and Thunderbird is my current mailer. Both have novel features, at least for me. Claws doesn't display HTML, but does a nice job of hacking HTML down to plain text, and a lot of mail looks better that way. Thunderbird formats HTML, but doesn't by default display graphics from elsewhere, so all those shopping and music publicist messages are showing up with big holes in them. I can get the graphics by clicking, and can whitelist certain mail addresses, but it's amusing and not unpleasant to drop them out. Thunderbird also tries heuristics to identify junk mail and scams -- most of what I get from music publicists fall into the latter category -- and presumably adapts to my reports. A lot of squishy uncertainty here, but looks and feels like progress. Only thing I've used the old machine for today was responding to a piece of yesterday's mail.
Also on the confuser front, I saw that there is a new release of Ubuntu (10.4.1) and tried installing it on one of my two Ubuntu machines. The change was from 8 to 10 and it failed -- first time I've seen that happen with Ubuntu. Very little info and no hint of how to work around it, so for now I'm stuck. Will have to dig a lot deeper. (I've had a similar problem with Fedora, and found that the command line tools work better than the window ones.)
Also have a bookcase I need to build, which actually I felt more like doing yesterday than all of this computer stuff. Too hot right now, but I may get the wood cut up for that later this evening. Also got two new books: Andrew Bacevich's Washington Rules and Chalmers Johnson's Dismantling the Empire. Also got Nicholas von Hoffman's Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky and Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus out from the library, so the thing I'd most enjoy doing right now is taking the next week and just reading.
The thing I'm least enjoying is trying to finish up the Jazz Consumer Guide column. I play stuff and can't write shit, play more stuff and still come up empty. Play new things and have no space for them. Play old things and can't come up with words. Meanwhile, I have lots of other things I do want to write about. Getting to where I hate this job.
Of course, it will be better when more things work -- and they will start working, much as mail last night bounced around from disaster to hopeless before it kind of came together.
PS: Nagged H&D right after posting this. After a couple minutes thumb twiddling, they came back and said, "try it again." Ping worked. I logged in as root. I logged into cPanel/WHM. Now all I have left to do is . . . all sorts of things I barely understand. Starting, I suppose, with DNS.
PPS: Roughly 24-hours later, I have made some progress. After much confusion and a few failed efforts, the nameserver is resolved and DNS set up for my initial domain. Adding more domains should be straightforward, but I'm trying to think through how I manage accounts and map accounts to websites and all that, which is something that cPanel provides tools for but doesn't offer a conceptual model (as far as I can tell). Also got the Ubuntu upgrade to work: had to delete some packages before upgrade then restore them afterwards. Have one more machine to upgrade, but should be the same deal.
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