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(Warning. This is a quite complex article that requires fairly sophisticated sysadmin/unix-skills. If you don’t have this, this article will probably make you really confused.)

Often when working for small companies, the IT-budget is very limited. Therefore you can probably forget about those awesome gadgets you drawl over in the sysadmin-magazines. Well, I’ve been working like this for years. Running Linux or a similar open source operating system on the servers is a good start in cutting costs, but there’s more you can do.

One of the companies I work for is located on the other side of the world (literally), which makes it hard to access the servers physically. SSH works fine most of the time, but what happens when you have a network error? Maybe the server fails to boot up properly after a power-failure, or maybe you messed up the network-settings and locked yourself out.

If you’re on an unlimited budget this is not a big problem. Then you just order one of these fancy $7,000 IP-KVM switches and this problem is long gone. But what do you do if you don’t have that money to spend on such equipment?

Here’s two different solutions that will work (almost) as good as an IP-KVM, but it takes a bit more work for you as a sysadmin. Remember, all these solution are based on the assumption that you only have Unix/Linux servers in your farm.

Option 1 – If you can afford spending $250-$350 per server.

There is a really nifty product available that is called PC Weasel. This product looks like a graphic card (PCI or ISA), but with a keyboard connector on the outside, and instead of a VGA-connector you’ll find an RS-232 (serial) port. So what this product does it that it emulates a graphic card, but spits out all the graphics to an RS-232.

What this enables you to do is to hook up a null-modem to either a computer or an RS-232-server (such as the ones available here (note that some of the RS-232-servers have SSH-support, making it almost identical to a real IP-KVM-system)). With this all hooked up, you can simply just connect to the serial-port on a different computer and you would see the same as you would see on a regular monitor. You can even access the BIOS – which is the biggest advantage with this solution.

Option 1 or 2 with a RS232-switch.

Option 2 – If you’re really on a tight budget.

This is what I ended up doing. I didn’t feel like paying the $350 or so per server, so I went for the budget solution – plain null-modems.

This solution will take you some more time to get running (if you’re not a hardcore unix/linux expert), but will cost you close to nothing. Once again, this will only work in a unix/linux environment.

The trick here is that we will be using the Linux-kernel’s (or BSD-kernel) serial-console feature to output to a null-modem. It’s not that complicated, but I’m not going to go into details in this post. You simply compile the serial-console module into your kernel, add some settings to your bootloader and your inittab and you’re set.

You can either do this between two servers (and take a chance that they won’t break at the same time), or you can dedicate an old box to be your RS-232-server. You can then just SSH into the box that is receiving the signal and use minicom to control the other box. Note that the big disadvantage with this solution is that you cannot control the servers on BIOS-level. However, it costs you close to nothing, and it will give you more control over the server than with regular SSH.

Option 1 or 2 without a RS-232 switch.

If you have more than two servers, you can build a chain-like system where server one is connected to server two, server two to server three etc., until you close the circle.

For further research I’d recommend the following sources:

Linux Serial Consoles for Servers and Clusters
Remote Serial Console HOWTO

Happy Hacking!

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

Yesterday our first non-government paper was received.
It was from Capital One.
They offered us a credit card.
We rejected their offer.
We do not need to purchase anything on credit at this point.
In particular not on those terms.

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

If you’ve been with us from the start, you probably already read our article Building the Base-camp Part 1. If you missed out on that one, I suggest that you go ahead and read it. In this series we talk about software applications that we as young entrepreneurs of the open source-generation use in our daily business-life. If you’re not familiar with many open source applications, you’re likely to find plenty of new tools that you will find useful. However, even if we are using many open source applications, that doesn’t mean that we never use commercial softwares. There are a few commercial softwares we do like as you will discover in this series.

Today I’ll talk about two utilities that might not be very well known to the average user, and therefor deserves some extra attention. The reason why I chose these two softwares is because I use these softwares very frequently, and I love using them.

The first software is not so much of a software as it is a set of Perl scripts. The software isA picture of Awstats for Playing With Wire. called awstats, and is a log-analyzer that creates a nice statistics page from a given log file (such as Apache or your FTP-server). We use this to analyze the traffic to this page, to see where our visitors comes from, as well as what they find interesting. Awstats also gives you other information such as how much time your users spent on your web-site, and what browsers and operating system they are using. If you enable the IP-lookup feature, you can even track down you users, to see from what country are from (assuming they are not using any proxy etc. in another country).

The setup of the software is fairly straight-forward. Just follow the instructions in the INSTALL-file, and you’ll be up running in no time. The only issue I’ve been experiencing with awstats has been related to the log-format in the config file. Make sure the config in you awstats config agrees with the log-config in your apache config file (assuming you’re using apache). By the way, do I need to mention that awstats is open source?

The second software is, in contrast to most of the other tools we use, not an open source application. If there was an open source replacement that could produce an equally good result as this software, I wouldn’t hesitate to switch. Anyhow, the software is called OmniGraffle Professional, and is a great tool for creating outlines, flowcharts and other types of drawings.Screenshot of OmniGraffle. Prior to using this software I always ended up with a bunch of papers laying around with numerous of flowcharts and drawings for every project I was working on. Still I usually start with some drawings on a piece of paper, but then I usually digitize it and throw away or shred the paper. The result is a fabulous looking flowchart or drawing. Not only do the result look better, it’s also much easier to send, print and share it with other people involved in the project.

I know there are plenty of similar tools out on the market to do these kinds of tasks, but I really like this software. Not only is the software easy to work with, it also uses graphics that make you want to show your work to others rather than hiding them from the world.

Nowadays I use this software for every possible usage. It doesn’t matter if I’m designing a web portal, a database or documenting a network or an organizational chart, this is where I begin. Another good thing is that it comes with numerous icons, and if these are not enough, you can download more of them from their website.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series. If you have any comments or suggestions, please post a comment.

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

While browsing the news today I found an interesting article on BBC. The article talks about web-standards and how most web-sites fails to follow them. The result of this is that all these web-sites block out all their disabled users who need alternative browsers.

As you might have read in our article ‘Why Your Site Should be Multi-platform,’ we strongly support the usage of web-standards in order to not block out any users. There are standards set by the W3C on what HTML should look like, but sadly enough, these are not widely obeyed. Microsoft has, mainly due to a dominant position of Internet Explorer, been able to abuse their position and ignore the rules. Hence, many (unskilled) web-developers today only build their web-sites for Internet Explorer, and ignore the standards.

However, with the increased popularity of FireFox, many companies are starting to realize that they’re actually loosing business by not having a compatible website.

The web-sites surveyed revealed that:

  • 93% failed to provide adequate text descriptions for graphics
  • 73% relied on JavaScript for important functionality
  • 78% used colours with poor contrast, causing issues for those with colour blindness
  • 98% did not follow industry web standards for the programming code
  • 97% did not allow people to alter or resize pages
  • 89% offered poor page navigation
  • 87% used pop-ups causing problems for those using screen magnification software

Not only do these web-sites discriminate against disabled people, but, from of a business point-of-view, they probably loose plenty of potential sales.

How can a disabled person purchase something from a web-shop when they can’t browse it?

How can can a disabled person find information about a product or service on a website that fails to support their browser?

Is your/your company’s web-site following the web-standards? The W3C Validator will give you the answer.

Read the entire BBC-article here.

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

Yesterday, we finally received a letter from the Secretary of State. After about 1.5 month of waiting, we are now finally a ‘legal’ company.

As you may/may not have noticed, we’ve already changed the footer of into stating ‘(c) WireLoad, LLC‘ rather than just Alex and Viktor.

So what’s next? Now we’re going to apply for a FBN (Fictitious Business Name).

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