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By Dan Lhotka

Virtualization

 One thing that we use frequently, and that users frequently have trouble wrapping their heads around, is virtualization.  This is commonly used on servers, and to a lesser extent, workstations.  It is used because it is a way to evenly distribute hardware resources, and provide service separation.  What does all that mean?

 

Around 2005, the first dual core CPU was introduced.  For the first time, computers got more powerful through parallel processing rather than sequential processing.  These new chips were not much faster at executing a single application than the CPUs before them, but they could run multiple applications much faster than earlier CPUs.  As time progressed, software developers looked for ways to distribute computing more and more, to take advantage of the advances in parallel computing.  Computer virtualization was born.

 

Virtualization is the process of running one or more virtual computers on one piece of hardware.  The RAM, CPU, hard drive, network card, and all other devices in the hardware computer (referred to as the Host) are shared with a program that mimics those resources to a virtual machine.  Using the virtual machine, it works and runs as if it was a separate computer, but it is still software located on the Host. As the diagram shows, doing this lets someone utilize the resources of the hardware much more efficiently than before virtualization.

One of the things we run into many times is problems where a single program is messing up, but in order to fix it, we have reboot the server and disconnect everyone.  Virtualization helps solve this problem.  Instead of having one server that stores files, keeps track of users and user permissions via Active Directory, and provides internet access, we have three servers.  One hardware server, with two virtual machines.  One virtual machine stores files, while the other one handles Active Directory and internet access.  That way, if a problem requires a reboot, we can just reboot the affected server and leave the other alone (unless, of course, the problem is on the Host!).  This is called service separation.

 

In some cases, service separation is required.  Microsoft requires Active Directory to be on a different server than an Exchange Server, for example.  Microsoft also recommends SQL (a database program) be on a separate server from Active Directory.

With desktop computers getting more powerful, virtualization can be done on them as well.  The most common example is Windows 7 XP Mode.  XP Mode is a virtual machine that runs Windows XP that works with Windows 7 computers.  It is a great way to run old programs that may not be compatible with the changes in Windows 7.

 

 

By Dan Lhotka

CPU : AMD vs Intel

Last month I posted an article discussing how to pick out a new computer. So let’s begin the promised deeper discussions of the various hardware components mentioned in said article.  The first component of significance is the CPU or central processing unit.  Many many people refer to their entire desktop as the “CPU” which is understandable as the actual CPU pretty much drives all the functions of your computer.  It is what allows the operating system to run all your programs.  But in reality the CPU is a small gizmo of silicon and gold (yes there is gold in your computer) that acts like your computer’s brain.  And like our human brain the CPU uses electric signals to tell the other computer components to do things.  It’s pretty cool actually.

But unlike humans who only have one brand of brain – squishy – CPUs have two:  Intel or AMD.  So the question facing most new computer shoppers is “which brand is better?”  Frankly it’s not an easy choice.  Intel has more brand recognition and better performance.  But you pay a lot more for that slight edge.  AMD is more of an underdog – their CPUs come close to matching Intel’s performance but just fall a little short.

And for the average home user that performance difference does not negate the significant price difference.  The AMD CPU will usually save you about $200 over its Intel match.  Yeah that is a lot of savings for a home computer.  But here’s the kicker – Intel CPUs are more efficient at what they do.  This does not mean they run your computer better – it means they take less energy to perform functions and generate less heat.  Which translates to less wear and tear on your computer as whole.  Remember that computer life span I discussed in previous article?  Intel CPUs contribute to a longer life span for your computer.  AMD CPUs run very hot inside your computer which degrades the motherboard, the hard drives, the power supply, and the network/component cards.

Now we’re back to the question of what you do on your computer – if you use your home computer in short bursts then the AMD CPU isn’t going to be much of a problem and you can put those dollars you saved in the bank.  But if you like to spend a couple hours a day taking care of your personal business and surfing the Internet then ultimately the AMD CPU is going to cost you computer life.  Which means another big purchase is closer than you were expecting.

It’s a matter of upfront cost vs. long term cost.  AMD is cheaper up front but more expensive long term.  Intel is more expensive up front but cheaper over the long run.  Let’s break that down a little.  Let’s say you buy a new desktop with an Intel CPU for $1200 that you use for 4 years.  That’s a per day cost of $.82.  Now let’s say you buy a desktop with an AMD CPU for $1000 and try to use it for 4 years.  But in year 3 the motherboard and power supply finally died so you wound up just buying another new computer for $1000.  So to get to 4 years of computer usage – you had to drop $2000 or $1.37 per day.  That’s a difference of $200 per year!  Which is exactly what you thought you were saving yourself with the AMD CPU.

Well let’s end on a positive note.  I’m not saying AMD CPUs are bad – they are very good performers for most of the home computers out there.  Again the best thing you can do for yourself is figure out how you want to use your new computer and then weigh it against the information I’m providing.  In any case I’ll be posting additional articles soon!

By Dan Lhotka

Microsoft and You

There are many different versions of Windows and Office, it can be confusing to those not in the industry to pick out what does what.  In this month’s blog, I will explain the differences between the different versions of Windows and Office.

First of all, Windows and Office are two separate products.  Windows is the operating system, and Office is a productivity application.  Office does not come with Windows, it must be purchased separately.

 

Office 2013

There are 4 different versions of Office 2013.  The main differences are whether the version has a repeating cost, and whether Outlook is included or not.  Office 365 is Microsoft’s subscription based product.  It has a yearly cost of $100 per year. For that cost, you can install it on 5 computers at home, have email access, and constantly get the latest version of Office.  It is pretty cost effective, assuming it is used at home, and that your household has multiple computers.  For businesses, the most common solution is Office Home and Business.  Unlike Office Home and Student, it has Outlook, which is the email program most used by businesses.

Windows

Currently, the operating systems available are Windows 7 and Windows 8.  User interface differences aside, there are several different versions of the OS themselves.

Windows 7 has three different versions – Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate.  Home Premium is the least expensive of the three, but it has limitations.   Those limitations make it difficult to repair from spyware infections, and make it so the computer cannot be controlled from a central server.  This second issue may not seem like a big deal, but it definitely is when you start factoring in shared folders and printers, and things of that nature.  Bottom line, we recommend Professional.  It is easier to work with, and has more flexibility.  Ultimate works fine, but is more expensive than Professional, and doesn’t give you too many additional features.

Windows 8 has two different versions – Windows 8 and Windows 8 Professional.  Like Professional for Windows 7, Windows 8 Professional is needed for networking and talking to a server.  So, we always recommend Windows 8 Professional.

As always, if you have a topic you would like to be brought up in next month’s IT News, send an email to newsletter@v2systems.mystagingwebsite.com

 

By Dan Lhotka

CrytpoLocker – a Dangerous New World

Most spyware we have encountered messes up the operating system.  It makes the computer slow, infects other computers, and throws up popups.  But most do not affect your data.

The latest spyware out there, CryptoLocker, is much different.  It will take the data on your computer and on the server you access and encrypt it.  It then stores the encryption key on its servers, and displays a ransom.  Pay $300 or lose your data. 

This is a very dangerous piece of software, because once it infects your computer, you have two choices – pay the ransom, or restore from backup. 

From what we can tell, the most common infection source is through email.  Emails sent to company email addresses that pretend to be customer support related issues from Fedex, UPS, DHS, etc. These emails would contain a zip attachment that when opened would infect the computer. These zip files contain executables that are disguised as PDF files as they have a PDF icon and are typically named something like FORM_101513.exe or FORM_101513.pdf.exe. Since Microsoft does not show extensions by default, they look like normal PDF files and people open them.

What to do :

1. Make sure your backups are up to date. Restoring from backup will allow you to recover your files.  For those people with V2 Systems Remote Management and Maintenance Agreements, we check your backups daily. 

2. Don’t open zip or archive files. The usual warning; don’t open attachments from unknown senders, or accept downloads you weren’t expecting. Don’t accept video codecs a website tells you are necessary. If a site tells you that you need a Java update or a new copy of Flash, check that it’s coming from Oracle or Adobe respectively.

3. If you get infected, and don’t have a full recent backup, then pay the ransom – but use a disposable prepaid debit card.

4. If you’re not sure if you are infected, or need assistance, call us at 703-361-4606 we will check things out for you.

5. Tell everyone in your organization, and be forceful; this is no joking matter.

We have also begun reaching out to our Monthly Service Agreement and Remote Management and Maintenance Contract clients, to implement a Group Policy Object to prevent the execution of CryptoLocker.
If you want more information about CryptoLocker, and how it works, read here:

http://www.bleepingcomputer.com/virus-removal/cryptolocker-ransomware-information

By Leilani Wardle

I need a new computer – now what?

Being an essential service IT support does not stop once the workday ends.  Much like the doctor who gets asked to look at a suspicious mole at the family dinner party; our friends and families like to reach out and ask for advice.  By far the most frequent question is “What kind of computer should I get?”.  Seems like a simple enough question and yet buying a new computer is a complex maze of components, cost, and quality that can overwhelm the most well informed buyer.  And technology buyer’s remorse is the worse right after buyer’s remorse for a car.

As an IT support provider we frequently help our clients update and replace their workstations so we’ve developed a few simple questions to help us match workstation to business function.  One, what is the computer going to be used for the most?  Two, how long does the computer need to last? And finally, what would I like to be able to do with it?  The first question requires a little personal reflection – it’s important to be honest with yourself on this one.  Of course everyone is going to use their home computer to write letters and make budgets and track schedules.  But really that is only going to be 15% of what you will do on the computer.  More than likely the majority of the computer’s time will be spent playing movies, or watching videos on you tube, or playing facebook games, or going through the vacation photos from last year.  And you shouldn’t feel bad about that – your home computer is a tool and a toy all wrapped together.  You don’t feel bad because your car takes you to both work and the movies right?

So what does this personal honesty about how you really use your home computer get you?  The freedom to save money on one part of your computer configuration and invest it in other parts that will provide the best daily performance.  And here’s the professional tip: invest in memory, CPU, video card, and hard drive speed.  Don’t be seduced by a large hard drive or fancy software.  You can save a lot of money by selecting a small hard drive with 7200 RPM write speed that will let your computer run very quickly and smoothly.

The second question determines how much memory, CPU and video card you want to buy.   If you want your computer to last a long time (long time for computers usually means 5 years) then you want to upgrade to the maximum number of cores in the CPU you can afford.  Cores are individual processors within the CPU which means the CPU can work on 2, 4, 0r 6 separate tasks at the same time.  The lowest number of cores you should get is 4 and if you are looking at running heavy duty photo/video editing and office software; you are going to want to up those cores to six.  It also means you should up the memory to maximum the motherboard will support.  And for longer computer life – don’t do the integrated video card.  An integrated video card means that it’s built into the motherboard and you cannot upgrade it without upgrading the entire motherboard.

The final question helps you figure out how to balance how much hardware and software you are going to buy and what kind of computer you are going to get yourself.  For example – would you like to be able to take a computer on vacation with you to upload photos to your sky drive and watch movies on the plane?  Well then you are going to want a laptop that is light and has wireless.  And has at least 8 GB of RAM with a 1 GB video card.  Windows 32 bit can only support 4 GB of RAM so now you know you are going to have to get the 64 bit version.  What if you truly just want to manage the family business and not do much else – well then a small desktop with 4 GB of RAM and integrated video card will suit you nicely.

So that’s it – this is how these simple questions help IT help their clients.  Buying a computer can be really simple if you know what you really want and need and what to focus on.  I’ll be posting additional articles that focus on the ins and outs of the various hardware components discussed in this article.

By Dan Lhotka

The Cloud

 

The Cloud

One of the buzzwords in IT is “The Cloud”.  “What is the Cloud?” is something I get asked many times.  However, the answer is not as easy as most things. This is because the Cloud is difficult to describe.  The best way I can think of that describes it would be :  a virtual network hosted via the Internet.  The idea is that you move mission critical functions and programs to a remote network on the internet.  According to NIST, there are five essential characteristics of cloud computing :

On-demand self-service. A consumer can unilaterally provision computing capabilities, such as server time and network storage, as needed automatically without requiring human interaction with each service provider.

Broad network access. Capabilities are available over the network and accessed through standard mechanisms that promote use by heterogeneous thin or thick client platforms (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and workstations).

Resource pooling. The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand. …

Rapid elasticity. Capabilities can be elastically provisioned and released, in some cases automatically, to scale rapidly outward and inward commensurate with demand. To the consumer, the capabilities available for provisioning often appear unlimited and can be appropriated in any quantity at any time.

Measured service. Cloud systems automatically control and optimize resource use by leveraging a metering capability at some level of abstraction appropriate to the type of service (e.g., storage, processing, bandwidth, and active user accounts). Resource usage can be monitored, controlled, and reported, providing transparency for both the provider and consumer of the utilized service.

So when someone talks about “going to the cloud”, they mean that they are moving their critical infrastructure or service to a virtual network on the internet. 

Cloud computing is cost effective, and provides much more capability than traditional networks.  However, there is one drawback to it.  You are totally dependent on your internet connection.  If internet is down for any reason, the critical software or service will not be available.  This may not be a big issue for some people.  Our email is hosted on the cloud.  If the internet is down at the office, I can go home and access my email with no difficulty.  However, it is something to think about and take into consideration when moving to the cloud.

Once again, if you have a question that you would like for me to answer during next month’s IT News, please send an email to newsletter@v2systems.mystagingwebsite.com

 

By Dan Lhotka

Hard Disk Drives vs Solid State Drives

  This month, I am going to highlight hard drive technologies.  Namely, Solid State Hard Drives.  Hard disk drives have been used in the computer world since the inception of the personal computer, and in that time, their method of operation has been pretty much the same.  Incased in each hard disk drive is a magnetic disk.  A mechanical arm with a magnet on the end of it moves to different sections of the disk, and changes the polarity of parts of the disk.  This is how data is stored on a hard disk drive.  This is also why hard disk drives eventually fail.  The motor that controls the arm could go bad, the motor that spins the disks could go bad, in addition to random electromagnetic spikes that corrupt sectors on the drive.  Over the years, the speed of the disks has been upgraded, the number of disks has increased, and the size of the “magnetic spots” has gotten smaller, making newer hard drives faster and hold more data.  Yet at the heart of it, the basic operation has not changed.

Enter Solid State Drives.  Solid State Drives use flash memory, similar to what you would use in a camera in order to store data.  The benefit of this is that you have no moving parts like you would in a hard disk drive.  That translates to better power consumption, much faster speed, and better resistance to physical shock. 

However, there are disadvantages as well.  First of all is price.  SSDs are expensive, and you don’t get that much storage with them.  A 300GB SSD costs about $250, while you can get 1500 GB HDD for about $100.  More importantly is the longevity question.  Since the SSD is made of flash memory, it has the same limitations as flash memory.  That is that there are only so many “writes” that each sector of memory will support before the sector is no longer good.  SSD companies compensate for this by creating “extra” space in the memory chips specifically for bad blocks, but eventually even that extra space gets used up.   What this translates to is an estimated life space of 5 years for a SSD.  Whereas regular HDDs have been known to last longer easily.

My recommendation?  Have your cake and eat it, too.   Have both a SSD and a HDD on your computer.  Install your operating system and programs on the SSD.  Store data such as files and email on the HDD.  The SSD should ensure that the computer runs quickly, while having data on the HDD ensures that it will last a long time. 

Once again, if you have suggestions on topics for me to talk about for next month’s IT newsletter, please send an email message to newsletter@v2systems.mystagingwebsite.com.

By Dan Lhotka

Internet Safety, Continued

Last month, I talked about malware and how it infects computers.  I also offered suggestions on how to help prevent computers from getting infected in the first place.  One of the things I mentioned was reducing your online presence. 

                By reducing your online presence, I meant be very careful about your online identity.  Give out your personal email address only to people you know and trust.  Get a “junk” email address.  Gmail is free, as is Yahoo.  When going to websites that ask you to create an account or enter in your email address, first I try to give them a fake email address.  I usually use something like asdf@asdf.com.  However, many websites fight against that by sending account activation emails.  You have to respond to an email they send in order to create an account on their website.  In those cases, I give them my junk email account.  Then, I can activate the account and not worry about whether they send spam. 

When creating accounts for access on websites, also watch out when filling in those forms.  Some have a checkmark next to “Please spam me with promotions all the time!”.  Uncheck those.

The bottom line is that when a website asks for your email address, think to yourself “Do I trust them not to spam me or sell my email address to another company”.  If the answer is no, then give them the spam email address.

Another major source of malware and viruses is from peer to peer file sharing services.  Places and software such as BearShare, Limewire, Bittorrent, eDonkey, Gnutella, Shareaza, Kazaa, and others are rife with malware and viruses.   Even Newsgroups (which have been around since the Internet began) have more viruses and malware than real files.  The only safe way to get music, movies, and software is to do the right and legal thing and buy it.  And when I mean buy, get it from a reputable site.  Places like Rhapsody, Pandora, Hulu, Netflix, and so on.

Basically, if you are getting it for free, there is a high possibility that what you get is not what you want.

 

I have created a newsletter at v2systems.com address.  Please feel free to send suggestions on things you would like for me to talk about.  I will make an effort to address anything that comes in, and also be discreet about it.  Otherwise, I will keep blathering on about things that I think are important.

 

By Dan Lhotka

How did I get infected and how do I prevent infections?

One of the things we deal with most often is malware infections.  When I say malware, I am talking about viruses, spyware, adware, etc.  All the things that get into your computer and make it run slow and cause problems.  Malware gets on to your computer through three different methods.

  1. Web browsing – this can be going to a bad site (either through searching, or mistype) or, downloading and installing bad software (either directly, or as part of something else).
  2. Email – this can come from opening a message from someone you don’t know, or opening an message that looks like it is coming from a friend when in actuality, it is spam.
  3. USB – With floppy disks dead, USB keychains have become a popular way to move files from one computer to another.  However, they still have the same security as floppies – which is to say, none.  Plug a USB keychain into an infected computer, then plug it into a good computer, and it spreads infection.

Considering that virus protection companies are in a constant state of catchup with virus makers, it is impossible to totally prevent your computer from ever getting infected.  However, there are methods that can be used to help prevent your computer from being infected.

  1. Make sure Java, Adobe Flash, and Adobe Acrobat are all up to date.  Most of the web infections that happen now a days use security holes in older versions of this software.
  2. Don’t use browsers other than Internet Explorer.  Chrome, Firefox, and the others have been proven to be less secure than Internet Explorer.  I know they are faster than IE, but it’s not worth the risk.
  3. Have antivirus on the computer.  We recommend Microsoft Security Essentials, or Symantec Endpoint.cloud. Microsoft Security Essentials is pretty good, and is free.  Symantec Endpoint.cloud is much better at preventing infections, but it only available for businesses, and does not run well on older machines (PCS older than 4 years old).
  4. When downloading new software, pay attention.  Many “free applications” also come with other junk.  You need to uncheck the extraneous stuff.  Java and Adobe Acrobat both do this.  If at any point it doesn’t let you uncheck the extra stuff, then cancel the install.  No software is worth getting spyware on your computer.
  5. Delete Email messages from people you don’t know.  If a friend sends you an email with an attachment, don’t open the attachment unless you are positive they actually sent it.  I usually call my friends to double check, but most of the time, looking at the message, it is easy to tell what is spam and what isn’t.
  6. Reduce your online presence.  Have two email accounts.  One that you don’t care if it gets spammed, and one that is personal for you and friends or acquaintances.  Your personal one, you give out to no one, and never use it online.  The junk account you give out, but grudgingly.

There are many other methods that help prevent infections, these are just a couple.  Next month, I will try to expand upon what is here.

By Dan Lhotka

An Introduction

 

I do what I do to help people.  I enjoy using my knowledge and ability to help other people with their computers.  It is the fundamental reason why I work in the career I do.  However, I am always frustrated by my inability to help everyone, or provide basic knowledge to help people use their computer better.  I have always entertained ideas of creating something like a newsletter to help educate people, so they have less problems working with computers, and can do basic things to help rectify problems.  Unfortunately, I never have really had the time nor forum in which to put this computer advice.  Until now.

As part of an effort to help promote V2 Systems and develop a better web presence, I will be posting information to our website that will help users with their computers.  Eventually, I will have an email address where you can send questions to that I will address in the newsletter.  I would like this newsletter to be a monthly kind of thing, but we will see how it goes.  With that said, here we go!

-Dan

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