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Bob Martens

Everything for No One

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Choosing Your Tools

What sorts of questions does one ask when choosing a tool?

I’m running into issues right now in my own head when it comes to choosing the tools I want to use for my work. It doesn’t matter if it is for my day job as a sysadmin or at night attempting to somehow fall into becoming something approximating an iOS developer (maybe … perhaps … somehow … ). It is hard to choose tools if you don’t have any questions to ask when you are choosing them.

Since sysadmin work is something I do more often at the moment, I’ll just list off some of the questions I ask when trying to evaluate a software package or any other kind of tool.

  • What is the license? This is where I start with systems stuff because licensing is a pain and often full of different ways to try and “get” you in the end. Microsoft seems to change its licensing scheme every few hours and SMART Technologies is doing the same sort of thing with their SMART Notebook software. Even forgetting the issues I have with interactive whiteboards (don’t get me started, they are a support nightmare), just dealing with licensing is a pain. If something is open source or has a pretty easy-to-understand license (thank you Attachmate), then I am more likely to look in that direction.
  • Does it have a web component? We have some things on campus which lack a web component and it hurts at times. What a first-class web component does is allow me to choose other tools (like my operating system) based not on if I have the proper software, but if I want to actually use something. “Enterprise” software is the worst with this because almost everyone has some Windows-only GUI you are almost required to use to do anything worthwhile.
  • This is a new one, but here we go: Does it have a mobile component? This is becoming more important as I use my phone for more and more sysadmin work. I can do a lot of stuff while on the road, but often mobile is an afterthought. Currently Request Tracker is the one tool I wish had a better mobile access to their excellent issue tracking software. I know these things will come, but it would be nice if it was sooner rather than later.
  • Does it force me to choose an operating system? I want to use my Linux distribution of choice and something forcing Windows on me or only “supporting” Ubuntu really doesn’t make me all that happy. I’m not going to toss it aside automatically, but I’m also more skeptical from the start because the tool is attempting to dictate infrastructure choices I would rather be able to make myself.
  • Is it in active development? Pretty self-explanatory. I want to see life before I start using a tool for something important.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but it is a place I can start when trying to evaluate options. I left off some obvious ones (I assume that the tool will do the job and do it well), and there are many I automatically use even if I don’t think about them. What are some thing you need to consider when you are looking at tools?

Image Credit: https://flic.kr/p/bRHngB

My “Downtime Face”

This is a ridiculous thing, but I’m looking for something to post to the blog so this is all you get!

I entered into the Show Us Your Downtime Face contest from SUSE a while back and was “lucky enough” to have a live picture to enter. There are not enough scare quotes to put around the phrase lucky enough in that instance. It wasn’t as stylized, but it was real!

To make a long story shorter (hopefully), that picture that I took was what was going across my face when I started to look at the logs for one of our primary application servers on campus. Needless to say, I was going to be facing a little bit of downtime that day. Luckily, that outage was able to propel me to be the first winner for SUSE’s contest.

I’m still not sure that is a good thing …

time management book image

Review: Time Management for System Administrators

Continuing along my IT operations book kick, I recently picked up Time Management for System Administrators by Tom Limoncelli on SysAdmin Appreciation Day 2014. Considering I continue to struggle with managing my own time at work every day while not dropping numerous proverbial balls, I thought it would be a good book to dive into.

After reading the book over the past week I have come to two conclusions about every time management book:

  1. Every modern way of managing your time comes back to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. When you peel everything away, this seems to be the rock upon which all modern ways of managing time is built.
  2. The best books about managing time take the general ideas from Getting Things Done (GTD) and then narrows it down to what matters for that segment of the population (e.g. system administrators) and adds some additional items that are not included within the larger, generalized GTD way of doing things.

With those two things in mind, I cannot help but recommend this book to any person who works even slightly within IT operations on any level. Not only does it take GTD and focus on how the general principles can help system administrators (even if Tom does not lay out the book that way), it adds all of the things that a system administrator needs to think about in order to free up time to get actual work done.

Instead of rehashing the book, I’m going to lay out some changes I am going to make in order to take some of the lessons from the book and apply them to myself.

  • I’m taking the time to really keep track of my tasks, even if it will take some time to break the habit. If something is worth doing, it is worth tossing into OmniFocus and then taking care to make sure I apply a due date to it so that I have it in front of me. The Forecast view within OmniFocus is where I spend most of my time since it combines the tasks I need to do with the calendar events I have for the day. I’ll adjust things in the future (and I will blog about what I am now doing), but just moving back into a more robust task management application is a big step in some sort of direction.
  • Usually infrastructure projects which eliminate work for myself and others takes a backseat to other work that needs to be done, but that is going to change. Being able to get automated systems setup for password management and account creation will free up our current staff to better use their time on things which benefit the entire campus. I will also be looking into a payment gateway to allow students to purchase print credit on their own, but there are other issues (like refunds) attached to that plan.
  • I am planning on spending some time digging into Ruby or Python as an automation language, and not as a web development language as I had in the past (Ruby on Rails).
  • I will have weekly meetings regularly and scheduled for regular times so that I don’t have to think about when they are going to happen or worry about setting up a mutually beneficial time for all of the parties involved. Either they can make it, or they can’t and we wait until the next week.

There will probably be more, and I’ll outline some in greater detail in the future (hopefully), but they also all seem relatively common sense. I believe that is the reason they will make the largest difference.

The important part right now is to make some changes and stick with them. Progress is the name of the game, not perfection.

So, head out and grab the book and read it for yourself. I have a paper copy on order already so that I have it at my desk whenever I need a little extra help.

iPrint Page

Integrating iPrint and PaperCut

As we began our summer projects, it became clear that we were going to move ahead with Windows 8.1 in the student labs for the coming school year. This was going to bring about a whole host of changes we needed to make to the supporting servers and systems at Martin Luther College, but the one I have been working on the most has been our print and print accounting.

Moving away from our aging iPrint and Pcounter infrastructure was going to take some thinking on my part, but I didn’t have a clear path forward in the beginning. So I’m writing this blog post in the hopes that it can help someone else in the future who is working with the new Novell iPrint, Novell NetWare 6.5, and PaperCut for print accounting.

Here is an overview of how the system is setup now:

  • All printers are created on the new iPrint 1.1 appliance. The drivers are then loaded for each platform and then associated with the printer.
  • For those printers that need it, I create individual profiles so that we do not need to monkey around with settings for each individual printer. Granted, this affects a very small number of overall printers.
  • When a print job is submitted through iPrint, the accounting is handled entirely by PaperCut through their iPrint integration. This is the part I need to setup again in the future when we upgrade the appliance.
  • PaperCut handles making sure the proper account is debited by reading the username from the Novell Client login information sent through iPrint. It might sound complicated, but it works.
  • Users can check their current account amounts through the user portal built into PaperCut. The administrative backend is also where we handled refunds and adding money to accounts.

This setup affords us some benefits I was not aware of at first.

  • We no longer have to worry about popups for print jobs and amounts. We have email notifications setup to be sent off when accounts get low and people are pushed to the user portal for questions about how much print credit they have left.
  • The iPrint appliance is currently not syncing with our primary eDirectory infrastructure. This has afforded us some time to move ahead with our migration to OES 11.2 at a slower pace instead of trying to push through the migration this summer (big win in my opinion). All user account syncing is handled by PaperCut.
  • We’ve eliminated the old Pcounter application, so our help desk can eliminate a Windows XP VM we were using specifically for that application.
  • Moving to the appliance allows us to easily move to newer versions in the future so we can keep in front of the technology curve. Until this summer we did not have the ability to move to Windows 8.1.
  • Student printing from the residential network is being considered once again since the account and printing infrastructure is up-to-date and should allow us the flexibility needed to only open up iPrint for printing to institution-owned printers.

However, here are a list of things to watch out for:

  • Make sure you open up port 9191 on your iPrint appliance by logging in as root through SSH and using YaST.
  • Speaking of YaST, always check the Advanced options of an area. I spun my wheels for hours as I was troubleshooting the creating of printers between iPrint and PaperCut, only to find that my firewall settings were bad. I should have known, but I didn’t.
  • Think through your directory structure. You will gain the most flexibility by using groups to differentiate user types, not their location within the directory tree. I am now planning our migration to do just that so we can move all of our printing through iPrint and PaperCut so that we are able to have better reporting.
  • We are not using the mobile printing capabilities of iPrint at all right now, but we will probably need to consider it in the future. When the time comes, I will need to be on OES 11.2 to get away from some LDAP attributes missing from our eDirectory 8.7 installations on NetWare.

Overall, in the short time I have worked with it, I have been very happy with how iPrint and PaperCut are working for MLC. If you want more specifics about our installation and what we are doing (I’m really working hard to keep things as simple as possible), please let me know.

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