Keeping the Legacy Alive

Virtualization, “The Cloud”, Internet of Things, Self-Driving Cars, Drones, Virtual/Augmented Reality, 3D Printing, Quantum Computing, Nanotechnology.

I could continue with a further list of the dizzying array of numerous other modern, bleeding edge, technological advancements in the technology industry that I could mention but that’s not the point of this little blog post.

My point here is that there is a side of our high tech world that most ‘End User’ Consumers and even most IT Professionals don’t even realize exists. Much of the newest technology actually relies on Legacy architecture.

Legacyin terms of the Technology/Computing industry is described as “an old method, technology, computer system, or application program, ‘of or relating to, or being a previous or outdated computer system’.”

In short, much of ‘todays’ technology is actually built, and/or tested, with ‘yesterdays’ technology. Manufacturing equipment in the circuit board manufacturing equipment are often highly expensive, in the mid to high 6-digits cost range, reliably built to do whatever task they’re designed to do for a very long time. These machines are not built to be ‘disposable’. Also, much of the processes themselves that are used to manufacture circuit boards really doesn’t change a whole lot, even as the technology itself does advance.

As an example of this would be one piece of equipment that comes to mind which is a Wave Solder Machine. Essentially what this thing is, is a big heating unit that melts solder into a liquid and then splashes it up under circuit boards as they move over the tank on a conveyor system. That’s fairly simplistic but essentially what the machine does. This process pretty much applies equally to circuit boards that were made 20 years ago as it does to the most modern, high tech, circuit board made today.

Essentially where I am going with this is that there are still a lot of Legacy systems in use in today’s manufacturing of technology and someone still has to keep this stuff running.

As IT Professionals we’re constantly pushed to add skills for the bleeding edge of our industry and there’s an overriding attitude of “upgrade it”. Many in this industry get blinders to the fact that sometimes that’s simply not financially feasible.

As an IT Pro, if you were to approach the CEO, CFO, etc. of a manufacturing company with the argument of:

“We need to replace this $180K+ piece of equipment.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s old. It’s running on an outdated operating system with old software that can’t be replaced”

“Does it still work?”

“Well, yeah it works perfectly fine but it’s old!”

Yeah, good luck with that. The Manufacturing industry especially runs with razor thin margins and very ‘tight wallets’ when it comes to company asset investments. If something still does what it’s supposed to do and it can still be kept running, it’s going to be used until there’s no choice but to replace it.

So, this is where my point has rambled to. There’s still a need for IT Professionals who are tasked with keeping “Legacy” systems alive for as long as possible.

Basically that’s me. I joke about being half IT Professional and half Paleontologist but to be perfectly fair to myself, I am very good at my job. I’m not trying to ‘toot my own horn’ or being some self-righteous douche here. I just want people to understand that just because I am in a situation where I have to keep “old skills” fresh, does not mean that I’m not good at what I do and that what I do isn’t important.

A recent example that, frankly, I will toot my horn about that stirred me to write this blog post.

We have a piece of circuit board testing equipment called a Flying Probe. We have several actually, but this one specific machine is the one I was recently called on to replace the PC. This machine is 20+ years old. I’m honestly not even sure what it does actually but whatever tests it performs are still valid and this specific machine is configured to work on boards for a significant customer that is forecast to drive a large portion of our company business this year.

Well, the controller PC that runs this machine has been ‘on it’s last legs’ for a long time and I’ve been warning management of this for quite awhile. It’s actually in the future forecast to replace it, but that forecast is more like 2018. In the mean time this machine is fairly critical to get us through this year.

So, Murphy’s Law being what it is, the PC recently finally reached a point where it just couldn’t deal with it anymore. It got to the point where the PC would reboot every 6 minutes. On the clock oddly enough. This obviously meant that it was essentially useless.

This PC is over 20 years old. Spec wise, for the tech savvy reader:

VIA motherboard
733 MHz Pentium III cpu
768 MB of RAM
160 GB IDE Hard Drive
128 MB Graphics Card
10/100 Network Card
Running Windows XP Pro

The equipment this old soldier powers requires specialized software, hydraulics controller card, and image processing. The machine is old enough that none of these things are replaceable anymore.

I’ve worked very hard in my current position to earn a bit of a reputation of being a ‘miracle worker’ for keeping this stuff running. Frankly, I hate it since it means I have no choice but to never be able to advance in my career. I’m stuck being Legacy just like the equipment I support and stuck watching the rest of my industry pass me by.

That said, needless to say I got called on to see what I could do.

Luckily, I had a newer “old” PC sitting under my bench. A system that was “only” 10 years old. Also an XP era PC, but one that was made at the end of the XP era instead of at the beginning of the era like the one that needed to be replaced.

Dell system/motherboard
2.8 GHz Dual-Core Pentium D cpu
4 GB of RAM
1 TB SATA Hard Drive
1 TB Graphics Card
10/100/1000 Network Card

In all specifications this machine is dramatically more powerful than the old one. If this works, not only will the test equipment still be useable, but it will be considerably better at doing what it does than it has ever been before.

Here’s the catch, the Operating Systems itself can’t be reinstalled. The software that this machine requires to runs is not replaceable. The PCI controller card that powers the machine hydraulics requires drivers that are no longer available.

So, I  basically have to put an old ‘brain’ into a new body, reconnect it’s nervous system, and bring it to life without any failure.

Or, cost the company $180-200K to replace the machine.

Deep breath. No pressure.

It’s pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if it wasn’t a ‘happy ending’.

I did it.

Imaged the old hard drive onto the new, larger one. Blue Screen of Death, no surprises there.
Repair Installation of Windows XP Pro so as to rebuild the OS without losing the installed drivers and software.
It boots! Sweet. But now the system Properties are blank. The Event Log is jammed full of obscure errors. Essentially the PC boots, but it has no connection to the hardware due to it being so dramatically different. ‘Lights are on but nobody’s home’ essentially.
An hour or two of researching and I figure out how to rebuild the ‘hardware layer’.
Re-register a couple hundred .dll files and system32 .exe files. Re-create system accounts.
Voila! It worked. Properties now show the actual new system specs. Event Log errors are gone.

Ok, huge sigh of relief and more than a fair sense of pride in the accomplishment because this was no small task.

However……. I still have to put the PC back into the test equipment and it still has to actually do what the old one did inside the equipment.

Go to put it back in the equipment chassis, and, it doesn’t fit. The old case was narrower than this new one so it wouldn’t fit through the front cabinet like the old one did.
Thankfully with some reasonable effort and about a half hour of laying on the floor, supporting myself with one arm while working waist deep inside the back of the machine it does fit inside through the back of the equipment.
Ribbon cables for connecting the hydraulics arms don’t reach the PCI card connections now because the PC is much larger now.
So, pull it out, flip it over, and start over with working it in through the back of the chassis.

Finally, all connections are plugged back in.

Call for the department manager to power this thing back up while basically holding my breath.

XP boots up (which sadly was still a big relief)
Proprietary controller software launches (whew!)
Equipment servos move as software controls are tested. Woot!

This machine now not only works, but works better now than when it was new.

This was no small accomplishment and I am very pleased that it succeeded. In the course of my career I’ve done projects like this. I’ve spent hours hacking system files and copying registry keys from old Win 95/98 systems into newer Windows XP or Win7 systems in order to get old, irreplaceable software working.
I’ve literally used a paperclip to clamp down a broken CPU heat sink in a machine, while it was running, in order to keep a manufacturing line from going down.

For the fellow IT Professional reading this, the next time you roll your eyes at the term “Legacy” and tell me “just upgrade it”, keep in mind that you may well have no idea of the challenges involved.

We do have a lot of advanced technology here and I work with a highly skilled Systems Administrator whose job is to drive the new improvements and processes but me, I keep Legacy alive. At least until it can be sent off and retired with the honor it has finally earned when no longer able to.




 

My 2 cents about Random LinkedIn Invites

I got motivated to throw my 2 cents out following a discussion on LinkedIn that came up on my feed that one of my connections had commented on. It was concerning how we should all just accept every invite we get because it increases our ‘network’. Since LinkedIn won’t allow their users to make posts longer than just a couple paragraphs I figured I’d rant here.

This discussion was primarily around receiving invites to connect out of the blue from individuals in the recruiting/headhunting professions.

While I very rarely get invites to connect from Recruiters because my skills aren’t really all that in demand I still disagree with the notion of accepting invites just because.

I generally always decline invites from recruiters, when I do get one, because I know that they are sending them because they’re simply clicking down their “People You Might Know” list and sending to everyone indiscriminately.

Like it or not, a Recruiter/Headhunter is only as successful as their contact list and the scope of their ability to network with people in the industry that they are recruiting for.

They’re selling a service and the more people in their contacts list that they can sell to, the more successful they are.

This isn’t in question and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s simply the nature of the position.

However, as such, it is far more beneficial to the recruiter sending out the invites than it is for the individual receiving the invite.

Blindly accepting an invite, on the off chance that a recruiter, who really knows nothing about you, ‘might‘ one day have a position you’d be a fit for will simply clutter your feed with posts that you likely don’t care about.

In the meantime, that recruiter gets to mention their considerable range of contacts as a selling point to people they ‘do‘ have a position for. They get to have a “500+ Connections”, etc. on their profile which looks impressive.

Like it or not, those of us on the receiving end of random invites are simply being looked at as a commodity and means to an end.

This isn’t a negative attitude, it’s a harsh reality.

Being a Recruiter/Headhunter is a tough job and is beneficial and necessary for the industries they server, but, like it or not there’s no incentive to simply accept invites on LinkedIn blindly UNLESS someone is actively looking for a new role, in which case THEY would be the ones sending a recruiter the invite.

So, if you’re a Recruiter, take a moment to actually put yourself in the position of the one you’re sending an invite too and don’t go getting all bent out of shape if they decline your request.

Bend Over and Cough, or My Thoughts on Microsoft License Audits

Or, if you’d prefer, “Welcome to Your Triennial Microsoft Rectal Probing”

Here’s the thing.

Software Piracy pisses me off. If you want software that’s under a paid license model, then buy it. If you can’t afford it, find a way, find a free alternative, or go without.

“Open Source! Open Source! #LoveThePenguin! Down with Micro$oft!”

Yeah, yeah, great, how about you sharpen your pitchforks and loosen up your skinny jeans somewhere else. Just go back to Instagram’ing your Starbucks Latte on your iPhone and leave me to my rant.

I’m in the process of what is called in Microsoft terms as a SAM Audit at work, again. We went through one in 2012 as well.

SAM stands for “Software Asset Management”.

Essentially a SAM Audit is an audit performed by an authorized anti-piracy contractor of Microsoft’s. They select businesses based on some criteria that seems to guarantee that small to medium sized business who have the fewest staff resources to handle the audit, and are the least likely to pirate software are the ones who get audited the most often. It looks to be at around a 2-3 year time frame.

When we were audited in 2012 the audit took us 9 months to resolve. 9 MONTHS!!

The root cause of why it took so long is because of their entire auditing model and because I don’t think they expected us to fight back.

A SAM Audit will have somewhere buried deep within it’s fine print some wording stating that it is 100% Voluntary. Even the way the auditors will speak on the phone and in their emails will be extremely vague and dance around any outright saying that the company is required to undergo the audit.

It’s supposed to be Microsoft’s way of ‘helping’ companies who might have inadvertently installed improperly licensed software to get back within their license requirements. The problem is the audit is performed by contractors who are given financial incentives to find discrepancies. They’re encouraged to report back any areas of the audited companies where potential future software purchases could be marketed to. Funny thing is half the time the auditor probably knows less about Microsoft licensing than the IT staff of the company being audited.

Essentially the SAM Auditor is really hoping your company will fail the audit and be too overworked or confused to argue their decision because that’s how they make money.

“But, it’s voluntary. I can tell them I’m not participating in the audit”

Yeah, sure kid. You go right ahead with that.

The thing is, there’s another kind of audit, called an LCC Audit.

Stands for Legal Contract and Compliance Audit. An LCC Audit, isn’t mandatory. It’s performed by some low level Microsoft lawyer and/or licensing expert who will most likely come to your place of business and turn it inside out until they’re satisfied or your company is bankrupt, whichever happens first.

The flip side of this is, in all honesty, a SAM Audit can be good for companies who use Microsoft software.

Microsoft’s licensing sucks! Even they don’t understand how it works half the time.

As such it’s quite easy to have honest mistakes in your IT structure that a SAM Audit will bring to light and you can fix the issues.

So, if you get “lucky” enough to get selected for one. Just grit your teeth and do it.

So, in a nutshell, that’s a SAM audit.

Now, back to my earlier comment about how their auditing model sucks.

It’s performed every 2-3 years. Just long enough to let issues that were found, and fixed, in a previous audit (if any) slip again. Or new issues to arise because, like I said, often times the companies are either too small to have the IT staff. Or they might not even be the same staff that were at the company during the last audit. Or they might be so large that discrepancies simply happen.

SAM audits are performed by contractors. Often not even the same auditing contractor as previously. The person who is performing your audit probably is only barely trained in Microsoft licensing.

They’re financially incentivized to find problems.

A better method?

Get audited voluntarily, Annually.

Yeah, I said it. Annually.

No, not anally. That goes back to my initial premise.

Every Year. By Choice.

Contact your Microsoft VAR Provider, aka, Value Added Reseller, and see if they do annual audits. You’re going to be buying your licensing from them anyway. So you get the SAM audit hell out of the way. This gets you all nice and proper in your licensing records and a clean slate.

Then you can have your VAR perform their own review of the audit. Then they can maintain your records moving forward and in 12 months they can submit a voluntary license report to Microsoft.

By doing so you stay off Microsoft’s RADAR for future SAM audits.

Even if you did happen to get picked for one, a simple email or phone call to your Microsoft VAR Partner and they send you a report that you send the SAM auditor and you ruin their day because they will know immediately that they won’t find anything.

Poof, you call it a day and go have a much needed beer.

 

 

 

 

An IT Geek Charity Challenge

 

Ok, Time for something a little different to blog about. This one is quite simple really.

I’m throwing down a gauntlet for other IT Geeks out there who also blog regularly, or just occasionally.

Below is a list of a few charities and organizations that I have found who are focused around Technology related causes. Either bringing technology and training to developing areas of the world, helping to rebuild communications and infrastructure in areas ravaged by natural disaster, encouraging technology education in schools, helping to increase diversity in the technology industry, etc.

Here’s how this challenge works.

If you are someone who has a Social Media presence, either in Blogging, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever. I’m challenging you to take this list, select one to donate to (your time, money, used equipment, whatever) then do some research and find other charities in this category that aren’t on the list and add them, along with these that I have listed, into a blog post, Facebook post, Google+ post, of your own and throw down this gauntlet for anyone who reads your post as well.

Preferably the organization is one that has more than just a local impact on our industry but whatever fits the idea is fine.

Disaster Tech Labs

“Disaster Tech Lab provides rapid response communication networks for use in disaster relief and humanitarian aid work. Our networks and services help to connect responding organisations as well as affected communities.

We also develop new technologies for use in disaster response work.”

Computer Aid International

“Computer Aid International is a UK-registered ICT for development charity which aims to reduce poverty through practical ICT solutions. We collect IT equipment for distribution in hospitals, universities, schools and not-for-profit organisations in over 100 countries.”

DenverTechForAll

“Tech For All makes available to individuals in the community the means to become skilled and competent in computer use; we do this by gathering donations, collecting and reconditioning used equipment, identifying qualified recipients and placing the appropriate equipment with them solely for their use and at no charge.”

Women In Technology

“When one woman helps another, amazing things can happen. Professional careers leap forward. That’s what Women in Technology is all about.”

Echo

“ECHO exists to reduce hunger and improve the lives of small-scale farmers worldwide. We work to identify, validate, document and disseminate best practices in sustainable agriculture and appropriate technology.”

These are just a few. Now here, I’ve done some of the work for you. Here are a few sites listing charitable organizations so you don’t have to do as much research.

 

Charity.org

Great Nonprofits

TechRepublic: 10 Charities Harnessing The Power of the Digital Age

 

There it is. Step Up. Accept this Challenge. Take one, Pass IT on.

An Internet Explorer Eulogy

IE is Dead. Yeah ok, in the age old analogy, lets stop kicking a dead horse by posting about it over and over again.
While I am a Microsoft person, I didn’t really use IE much but I also didn’t have anything against it. IE definitely had problems, security holes, and it’s own special mess of issues that only website developers can appreciate.
However, because I’m tired of the Browser Trolls spouting off their tired rhetoric and the derp derp “good riddance Internet Exploder, Micro$oft needs to retire too” derp derp I want to toss out some reminders to give credit where credit is due.

  • XmlHttpRequest, the basis for Ajax and what most modern web applications are built on today
  • Dynamic HTML
  • innerHTML
  • iFrame
  • The Favicon
  • contentEditable and designMode, both of which were Microsoft’s inventions and are now part of the HTML5 standard.
    IE was the first browser to use CSS.
  • Sadly, it did also introduce ActiveX but, like it or not, that’s used heavily still, for good or bad

Security exploits, anti-competitive practices, directly causing the death of Netscape (which I greatly preferred over IE at the time) aside, without IE, none of your preferred browsers that you’re busily spanking yourself over, or the web as we know it today, would even be here if it wasn’t for Internet Exploder.

And, for the myriads of comments I’m seeing from people who have already decided that whatever the Project Spartan browser turns into will be an abject failure simply on the grounds that it’s a Microsoft browser, get a life, get out of your parent’s basement, and get into another line of work that doesn’t involve acceptance of new technology simply on it’s own initial merits and making decisions based on actual facts and quantifiable conclusions.

Microsoft of 2015 is not the Micro$oft of the 80’s and 90’s and you’re an idiot if you don’t realize that and at least give whatever new technology comes a fair chance.

All things considered, I’m raising a beer in it’s memory, both good and bad.

Scratching the Surface of IT Certifications

I am regularly discussing the value of IT Certifications and also the availability of legitimate, trustworthy sources for training materials.

There is definitely a polarized opinion concerning the value of certifications with some very heated opinions on both sides. I’m not really going to go into my thoughts on that in this post but one thing I can say is that a huge factor in some individuals low opinion of certifications is the rampant piracy of training material and the availability of braindump websites.

In an effort to fight the sketchy braindump sites I wanted to provide a small list of some legitimate training resources that I have compiled and also some tips on determining if a training site is legitimate or not.

First things first, my list. Keep in mind this is barely dipping into all the different resources out there. Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, Juniper, Dell, VMWare, HP, on and on and on, all have their own certifications and approved training partners.

This is just a, in no particular order, list that I’ve thrown together.

Online Resources:

CBTNuggets
Kaplan SelfTest
MeasureUp
Transcender
PluralSight
Lynda.com
ITPro.tv 

Brand Specific Sources:

The Cisco Learning Network 
Microsoft Learning
Microsoft Virtual Academy
Microsoft IT Academy
Dell Education Services
Born To Learn
Oracle University
VMWare Education
CompTIA

There are also a fair number of physical training facilities available. My knowledge of available facilities is mainly US-centric so I am not sure who has locations in other countries but they should have location information on their website.

Potential Local Learning Centers:
New Horizons
CompuCom Systems, Inc.
ITT Technical Institute
TechSherpas
The MicroAge Network 
ONLC Training Centers
QuickStart Intelligence
Global Knolwedge
Learning Tree International 

A few other lists of resources that include ones that I haven’t listed here:

Useful Training Resource Lists:
http://www.tomsitpro.com/articles/best-it-training-certification-resources,5-78.html
http://certguard.com/trusted.asp
http://www.trainingindustry.com/it-training/top-companies-listings/2014/2014-top-20-it-training-companies.aspx
http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2015/01/21/choose-the-right-online-it-training

A Good Blog Concerning Certification Piracy:
https://borntolearn.mslearn.net/members/kerri-davis-_2d00_-msl-anti_2d00_piracy-pm/blogs

One thing potential IT certification takers need to keep in mind is that they’re all a lot more comprehensive and difficult to pass now due to the rise of pirated test answers and braindump websites offering to sell tests and “guarantee a pass”.

If some certification website guarantees a pass or your money back, it’s a braindump and not legitimate, period. When in doubt, research. Contact the individual companies behind the certification you are seeking.

They all lose money off intellectual property theft so they’re going to be more than happy to help direct people towards their legitimate certification partners.