Tuesday, 31 March 2009

DPM Update

Having spent some time with the man from Dell (monty?) it appears we have resolved the issue with the autoloader. It now backs up across multiple tapes - hooray!

It appears that the Removeable Storage Media service was the problem; once it was stopped and the Dell drivers updated, the system was able to correctly identify the autoloader device; previously, it just showed it as an Ultrium 3 tape drive.

I carried out a couple of tests over the weekend and they both worked really well - I've now loaded the device up completely, erased all existing data on the tapes and am going to start setting up a more efficient tape backup regime. I did one test and it allows me to pull out individual files from the tape - I need to work out how long we are going to keep the backups and how often we will run them. We have a number of options, but I'm not certain which is going to be the most efficient method. I'll maybe post some more on this later.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Ooops; Time to backup

One of the biggest issues in IT is the subject of backups; they are a real PITA until you lose data, then they are sooooo important. The problem is that it's difficult to get users to set-up a sensible backup regime that they will actually use. And of course when they delete that important file or folder, and it turns out that it isn't backed up, it's all the IT dept's fault.

Over the years, I have tried numerous different products from the big vendors - they all have their good points and unfortunately, many faults. Several are complex to manage and with limited time and resources, it's difficult to maintain a good level of secure data backup. Personal opinion; many of them now are just too bloated with unnecessary addons - they might be needed by larger companies, who might have the people to spend all day managing them, but it's not what I need.

Anyway, just over a year ago, my Dell account manager told me about Microsoft Data Protection Manager 2007. I have to be honest, I was pretty sceptical- someone had sold me a similar thing through another supplier and it was an unmitigated disaster - we eventually got our money back, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth as a result. Much against my better judgement, I bought one of Dell's PowerVault servers running MS Storage Server with the DPM software.

I have to say though, it was a really good decision; the product worked, literally straight out of the box. Within just a few minutes, we had started getting a secure disk to disk back up from a couple of servers. Later we added one of their MD1000 JBODS to increase the amount that could be stored. Now, with the one device, we do a disk to disk backup of all the servers at our site and at the 2 remotes sites as well; we don't have to rely on them to remember to swap the tapes over. We are even suggesting that we could backup servers in another country.

It operates during the day, synchronising with the data stores; it then creates recovery points automatically, from which we can restore as necessary. Occasionally, we take a quick look to make sure that it is still running - RDP to the server, check the "Protection Groups", all done in about 5 minutes. The Recovery console is pretty simple to use as well; search through the folder list, find the items to restore and press the recover button. Simples!

It also can be set-up to allow the end user to recover their own data (now I know what you are thinking, and I have to agree, who in their right mind would trust the average user to do a data restore?) In fact we limit it to a couple of very specific users that are smarter than the average bear and quite capable of doing it without causing even more damage. Yes, it works and they love it to bits. (I still wouldn't trust most of our users to do it though!)

Sounds too good to be true? Well yes, it has its faults. The data replication / synchronisation from the remote sites is a bit of a lengthy process - we have limited bandwidth and desperately need more (Are you listening Stephen Carter? 2MB by 2012 is NOT enough! We need 100MB NOW!)

We also had a problem with the tape backup process - turns out that the old autoloader was faulty. We bought a new Dell 124 tape loader, but still couldn't quite get it going. It would do a backup to tape, but only if the amount was under the tape limit; it wouldn't swap to a new tape automatically, which is what it is supposed to do.

Anyway, I spent just over an hour on the phone yesterday with one of the Dell support people. Now not so long ago, Dell support was an oxymoron; I have to say, it is pretty damn good now; their guys really know their stuff. Finally got it sorted and now the loader seems to be doing its thing as it should (still got to check it out).

As you can probably tell, my staff and I are pretty chuffed with this product. It has definitely improved our backup process - we reckon that we save about 1 to 2 hours a week. We used to have major issues with the tapes on the remote sites, and that is just a distant memory now. Data recovery is so easy, it's almost embarrassing - we had a young lad in on work experence, and even he could work out how to do it without loads of training.

Anyway, if you are a small or medium enterprise with limited resources having backup problems, or want to improve what you are doing, then I would suggest that the DPM Server product is something that is worth considering. Just to help, here's a link http://www.microsoft.com/systemcenter/dataprotectionmanager/en/us/default.aspx

There are loads of white papers / case studies / product notes on the Microsoft site, so you can get a bit more technical - but for me, the main thing is that it works, it works well, and it is very cost effective.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Have you turned it off and on again?

In case you haven't seen this clip before, here's a link:


No doubt that this is what a lot of people think an IT depart is actually like. I would say that I don't agree at all (obviously); but the problem is that what our users think of us is important, and if this is their impression, then we have a long way to go to rectify that view.

If the users think we are ignoring them, putting them down or talking over their heads, then they will not listen to us; if they don't listen, then they won't learn anything. We are then stuck in a situation where they repeat the same errors, and never understand where they are going wrong and never learn how to do something correctly.

As it happens, we do find that in many cases, a simple re-start will fix the problem; people don't know what they have done (or quite possibly, don't want to admit to what ever it is they have done) and the restart puts everything back as it should be. Not necessarily the right way to do it, but we have to get them working again as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it then gets to be a bit of a cliche.

It's also very true that sometimes, we use a bit too much jargon; many users do get very confused by it, and sometimes it doesn't help if they think we are just trying to put them down. In most cases, it depends upon the user - some of them can handle it, but all too often it is just not what they want to hear. As is often the case, it is very much "horses for courses".

A short one today; more later.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Blogging away

I can't actually remember when I did my first blog - it was definitely some years ago. But, I never really could be bothered to keep up with it, as I tended to think "who is going to read this?".

Back at the end of the 19th Century, many famous diarist / writers etc. use to write to one another, sometimes 4 - 6 times a day. Of course in those days, the post used to collect and deliver many times a day - in London, especially around the West End or City areas, they would have 8 collections / deliveries per day. How times change! I actually can just remember the last time that I got a personal hand written letter - just before Christmas 2 years ago from a friend I haven't seen in about 5 years.

Electronic mail (including IM, and texts) has taken over from writing letters and I know that many people do keep in touch that way. We don't allow IM at work (as it could encourage people to spend time away from their job) and I note that there are a number of people that send "text emails" - they use their email to send the short one line abbreviated messages that would normally go via the mobile.

The blog of course is more like a personal newspaper comment section - you make your feelings known and post for all the world to see (or more likely not). Although there are some bloggers that do attract larger audiences, it's more likely that they are espousing extreme views or have attarcted notoriety for some other reason than the quality of their writing. Of course that is not what this one is for - it's more about sharing information, particularly of the sort that might be of value to other people in a similar line of work.

Some years ago, I was told by a senior manager that too often, people were working so hard that they forgot to stick their heads up and take a look around them to see the bigger picture. I can agree with this; particularly in IT, there is so much going on all the time, that it easy to forget that the work we do is a means to an end, not just work for its own sake.

The blog partly allows us to do just that - stick our heads up to see what else is going on. And hopefully, my comments and thoughts will be of value to other people rather just an ego trip for myself.

Monday, 16 March 2009

In the Land of the Blind, the One Eyed Man is King

... Or so the story goes.

(In fact, if you read the story, it turns out that the Blind don't actually see it as a handicap; and the sighted person is treated as a freak!)

Dare I suggest that this has a resonance for those of us that work in IT? We have built up our skills over a period of time, and take pride in our ability to do various tasks. The users that we support tend to have at best, a level of knowledge that is patchy. In many cases, they don't even appreciate how little they know - you then get the person that has installed instant messaging at home, so therefore thinks that they can do this at work and is unaware of the larger issues involved or the problems that it might cause.

What makes it worse is that for many of us, we have to work with business people that don't understand how it all hangs together (and often don't want to); but immediately something goes wrong, they want to micro manage fixing the problem - rather like someone grabbing the steering wheel in a car when it goes into a skid.

I think that those in the medical profession would understand some of this. They spend many years training, before going on to their specialisation. They get patients that have abused their bodies, smoking, drinking, eating too much, and when the patient falls ill, it is expected that the doctor can issue a pill, potion or injection that will instantly cure the problem.

The reality is course that there are many things doctors cannot do; in fact, they all take an oath to "First, do no harm". Although medical science is improving almost daily, all they can do is delay the inevitable. And in many cases, their advice is ignored; and I think almost everyone in IT can relate to that.

In many ways, we are like the Guild of Handlemen of Holywood (apologies to Terry Pratchett - "Moving Pictures"); we are not passing knowledge down from father to son, but more around to each other at the moment. It's also true that as the technology develops, practices have to change, and we see that happening at a much faster rate than any other profession has in the past.

I am a great believer that we need IT to be recognised as a profession and that the practitioners should all be encouraged to seek some form of professional or qualilfied status. This will not be easy - IT as an industry is still a very new area of expertise, whatever date you mark it from. Although there are those that worked with mainframes in the 50s, 60s & 70s, the speed of growth in the nature and importance of IT over the last 3 decades is the crucial issue.

As a result, we should realise that we are setting the standards by which others will follow; we need to look up from the tasks we have to do on a daily basis and take stock of what is happening. We have to ask ourseleves the right questions - not just how to do something, but why should we do it (and sometimes why not).

I think we should begin not by considering ourselves as "one eyed men", but that those who we see as blind are actually just newly born; and that they can learn to see as well as us.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

If you build it, they will come

"If you build it, they will come". The tag line from the Kevin Costner film "Field of Dreams".

I regularly get information about using the newer web technologies within the business. "You must have a portal, it's essential for staff to have blogs, make use of Twitter" etc. These proponents seem to believe in the statement above -"If you build it, they will come".

The reality for me is far from this. I set-up a SharePoint portal over a year ago, did numerous demos, sat with people to train them. Of over 150 staff, less than 25 are making use of it on even an occasional basis. We have 15 portal sites, of which 2 are in semi-regular use.

We've proven that it works with several major projects. It shows that with the data in one place, it makes it easier to collaborate, there are fewer problems, and the time saved is quite noticeable. But still people won't use it - Why?

I wish that I had an answer. I will say that training is a definite problem; even though I have spent some time with various individuals, they still don't understand what the benefits are and I think that there is more chance of me winning the lottery than getting them to use the portal. I have difficulty even getting them to go the portals - you would think that I'm asking them to perform brain surgery.

I constantly get loads of offers from companies that want to help me re-design portal pages, develop wikis, set-up IM servers, introduce all manner of other projects. They all say the same; this will help you win business, retain customers / staff, help you develop products faster, get them to market quicker, yada, yada, yada. But if we cannot get people to use these products, they are just another waste of money. It doesn't matter how wonderful they are, they are only of value, when they actually do something for us to achieve our core goals.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Which one is the "Any" key?

This is just really to get started - I've been asked to set-up a blog to take part in a study organised by a big company. The study is to help them understand some of the issues involved in support and how it could be improved. Call me Mr Cynical, but I think that the best thing to help us would be a brain implant for all users!

This is a rough list of some of the issues that we have had to deal with this week. One of the directors had a problem with his home PC at the weekend - daughter downloaded a music file and it had a virus. Then another director put some home pictures on his laptop and he has a trojan horse. So we have had to deal with that for a couple of days

We've had about 7 requests for help with printing - 4 needed a new toner cartridge, 2 the print spooler had stopped, 1 had a piece of paper jammed in the device.

A lady in payroll took the week off; someone else had to go in to the work, and she needed help setting up the PC so that she could work with the HR / Payroll software. She also needed her phone moved.

There was a request to move / repair a network cable - it was a temporary thing that has turned into a more permanent solution. One of the staff also had to go to another site as we are cabling up a new building and he needed to do a second lot of work on patching cables up.

I had to deal with a site in France - the VPN link went down again (their connection is dodgy). We have also been trying to get the DNS server transferring zone data, and I finally got that resolved.

They had a query with setting up a new email account that will be shared; this was made more difficult as they have both Office 2003 and 2007 and the proces is slightly different on each. I had to set-up a copy of Office 2007 so that I could create screenshots to help demo the process.

They also asked about potentially running an EDI process, however it turned out that was actually not what is happening, plus we are implementing a new ERP solution, which makes it academic anyway.

I've been carrying a massive series of updates on the new ERP - spent almost 3 full days on that alone. One of my staff runs an automated process for patching, but it can't do the ERP.

I'm also trying to get a server set-up to act as the DC for a child domain of the groups main domain - this is the brainchild of my opposite number in Germany. Unfortunately, it's made a bit difficult as the guy that looks after their network doesn't reply very quickly to emails. I'm still waiting for a response to a mail I sent on Tuesday.

We are putting in a new autoloader tape drive for backups; it's now in, and we seem to be getting the tapes working. We'll see how it works later. It's linked to an MS DPM server which we all think is the dog's nuts - it backs up all our servers on all sites and the recovery is a piece of cake. We are so impressed with this product.

In addition, one of the guys is developing a web based portal for use by our staff and customers - he has been trying to develop something to reduce the amount of Excel spreadsheets that are being used on another site.

Mid week I went to a vendor presentation - early start (5:00 am) and later finish (10:00 pm). We are way down south and it takes ages to get anywhere.

Hopefully that's enough to get started - more later.