SpectraAccess came to the school today and got us hooked up with an antenna and modem. We now have much faster access to the Internet. As soon as I saw that it was working, I called HughesNet and cancelled our satellite Internet feed. This is sooo much better. With no satellite latency to suffer through, double the download bandwidth, no bandwidth cap (daily, monthly, or otherwise), it is about like going from dial-up to broadband.

Our new connection comes with a static IP address, so I will be able to remotely log into the servers at the school and make any necessary adjustments without driving out to the school. I have a very long list of things to do to the network now, including migrating to a new server, and repurposing the old one. I can move the card catalog off a PC at my house and onto a server at school. The possibilities this opens up are manifold!

Today I felt I had a severe case of the Reverse Midas Touch – everything I touched turned to… not gold. I was having a hard time getting stuff to work at the office. It used to work, but it refused today. Then I got an email from Beth’s teacher.

Last night after work I went to the school to bring the new terminal server online. It’s a very beefy server. I did the install at home, so it was mostly ready to plug in and run – I just needed to copy user files over to it, add user accounts, and make a few other adjustments. That took about two hours. When I was finished, I turned on the client PC’s and saw them boot. I logged in, and saw that that worked too. I was feeling pretty good about it all.

Until I read the teacher’s email. Nothing was working. So I hopped in my car and drove right over. After fussing with the new server for 30 minutes or so, I decided to just switch back to the old server (which was still in there, but off). I had made a few changes to it as well to move it out of the way, so I had to unchange that. It took me another 30 minutes. Then I rebooted the clients again, logged into each one, and saw that everything seemed to be in good working order. So I drove back to the office.

Someone had parked in the spot I had been in. There were no more spaces left in the garage, so I tried the outdoor lots. Both were full. So I went to the city garage and parked there ($2.30 – not a bad deal really). When I got to the office I found another email from the teacher. Nothing was working. In fact, it seemed like whatever had taken out the new server had struck the old one as well. The symptoms were about the same. I wrote back – I’d stop in after work and try to sort things out.

I was so upset that I didn’t feel like dealing with a dirty bowl – so instead of making one dirty, I ate some soup cold right out of the can. Soup is always better when it’s warm, but it was not sooo much better that I was willing to wash a dish – today at least. Then it was back to the grind of figuring out why things I get paid to work on were no longer working. I made little headway, but there was some progress.

After work I drove back to the school to sort out the server situation. The teacher was still there, and I asked her a few questions – and that’s when I learned that her second email had been sent before I had gotten there the first time. There was no problem. Everything was working perfectly. The reason the second “problem” sounded so much like the first problem is because is was the first problem. What a moron I am.

So I was miserable all afternoon and ate cold soup for nothing.

I will go back again sometime when I have a little more time and debug the new server. It is a much nicer machine. I think I may even know what is misconfigured on it, but that remains to be seen. Hopefully I will be cured of the reverse Midas touch by then.

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Corvus brachyrhynchos

I took a walk at lunch time today just to see if I could find something to take a picture of. That usually means flowers, but not in January in New Hampshire. Instead I was looking for animal tracks. That was not productive either, as the the snow on the ground now is basically ice. The only tracks I saw were those left by cats and dogs. So I looked for birds, and voila – found one.

In other news…

I finally found an alternate ISP fr our school. We’ve been using a satellite link from HughesNet, and everything about it has been horrible. It is painful to use. There are no wired Internet connections within a mile of the building, so the only options we have are over-the-air. We could have gone for a Verizon cell link, but they have a 5 gigabyte per month bandwidth cap which when exceeded costs 50 cents per megabyte. It’s not difficult to envision a five digit Internet bill with a policy like that in place. No thanks! Hughes also has a bandwidth cap, but it’s daily, and when it is exceeded, they simply clamp the flow down to less than a dial-up connection. We’ve hit it more than once, but it did not result in a five digit bill – only pain and suffering.

The problem with a satellite connection is that the satellite has to be in a geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles (or so) up. Given that the speed of light is not infinite, that means it takes a little more than a tenth of a second for the signal to travel from the ground to the satellite. And then it has to go down again, which translates into a quarter second delay. And that’s just to get your request for information onto the Internet. It has to traverse the same path in reverse to get back again – so there’s a half second of delay for pretty much everything. That renders interactive web sites exceedingly painful to use – some become completely unusable.

But as I wrote earlier, I have found an alternative. My employer uses something like three ISPs, and one of them (SpectraAccess) provides a line-of-sight terrestrial radio link to our building. I knew they were in Manchester, so I assumed they would not be a possibility for our school. (We don’t have line-of-sight from the school to Manchester.) But I asked our IT guy about them anyhow. Apparently, though their offices are in Manchester, they have an antenna only two miles from the school – we have a direct shot at them.

Our company pays them an enormous (to me) amount of money each month, but that’s for a pretty hefty link. I called them expecting them to quote me $300/month or something like that, but instead they quoted $60/month. That’s less than we’re paying Hughes.

Our Hughes connection is 3Mbits/second down and 128Kbits up (which is pretty terrible). The connection SpectraAccess quoted is 7Mbits down, 2Mbits up. That is a pretty substantial speed increase. Further, they have no bandwidth cap at all, and the price includes a static IP address.


Having a static IP means I can log into the school servers from anywhere and do maintenance from home in the evening, or from work for an emergency. I can also move the library card catalog server out of my living room and into the network closet at the school. Since it’s web-based, that means I will also have a public-facing web server I can play with again.

All I have to do is get the school board agree to pay the installation fee of $200 or so. I don’t think that will be a problem.

One of the parents at our school donated a new server last month too, so I have that at home now and have been configuring it for the school. It’s a fairly hefty machine: Dual 3GHz processors, 6Gigs of RAM, and a 5 SCSI disk hardware-based RAID array. Nice. That should speed things up at the school a bit, but truthfully, I am far more excited about this new Internet connection than about the server. It will have a greater impact on the system’s usability.

Today was Beth’s first day of fourth grade.

Fourth Grader

Fourth Grader

The school looks great, but the renovation is still not quite complete. Last night after work, Jonathan and I stopped there to put the network back together. We didn’t finish (nor did I expect to), so we stopped there again tonight.

We got two quad Ethernet outlets installed beneath the computer tables, hooked them into the patch panel, mounted the patch panel to a wall in the closet, and hooked it into the 10/100 switch. We also plugged the LTSP server back in, set up four thin clients and booted them. So that’s all working.

We still need to run a cable up to the office so we can hook this network into the Internet.

Giving the teacher a computer network that doesn’t connect to the Internet is like saying, “Here’s broom. I hope you didn’t want to sweep with it though!” We’ll get on that as soon as we can.

I also need to connect the printer and take care of some other odds and ends.

Computer Lab

Computer Lab

Our church school is undertaking a remodelling project, and I volunteered to head it up. Jonathan and I stopped by there today and got started. The real work begins Sunday morning though.

Tonight we shut down the computers and moved them upstairs. We will not have Internet access at the church until we can snake the cable through the ceiling/floor though. Jonathan has agreed to set all that equipment up on Sunday.

The plan is to first move all the furniture out of the way. Then take down part of the ceiling grid and unwire some walls (including the network cables I laid not too long ago).

Once that’s done, we will start dismantling some walls. The class room is to absorb the hallway plus a large closet (which is where the computing equipment was housed until tonight).

If I can manage it, I will work on this project every evening until we leave for Kentucky or until it’s finished. School starts on August 23, so we do have a hard deadline.

I still haven’t figured out where I want the servers to live. We might enclose an area for them in the classroom, or we might put them upstairs somewhere.

Here’s an email exchange I participated in last night with my brother-in-law, Richard:

Why, you whipper-snappers, back in my day if you wanted to
network computers you had to run a cat-5 ethernet or RS232 serial
cable to a terminal device and hook that into a router or
terminal server and hook that into a server running some flavor
of UNIX using X-Windows – unless you wanted to run Windows 3.1 in
which case you had to use [something] like Novell or Lan tastic.

You had Cat-5? We never had it so easy! When I was younger we had
to run coax to all our computers – serially! Non of this sissy
star-configuration stuff like we have today.

And then we had to hook them up to an AUI adapter. On a good day we
could get a 10Base-T connection to the server, and that was shared
by the whole company. These were connected via hubs too, which do
not isolate traffic.

And we were GLAD we had that! Before we got the 10Base-T, we had to
carry our files from one computer to another on 5 1/4″ floppy

5 1/4″ floppy disks! You were lucky! We had to use punch cards and store them in a shoebox in the middle of the road!

You had punch cards! We had to hand assemble our code and punch it into the machine in hexadecimal. Once we got it debugged we were allowed to burn it into an EPROM, but until then, we had to punch it in every time we wanted to run it.

We would have KILLED to have a box of punch cards we could store in the road.

Hexadecimal! You were lucky! We had to convert Roman numerial data using a Mesopotamian binary abacus to translate the code into ASCII (or EBCIDIC for you IBM’ers) and pipe it thru a 300 baud acoustic coupler just to get our ENIAC’s tubes hot enough to keep our coffee warm. Well, it was just muddy water but it was coffee to us!

You had a Mesopotamian abacus! Ours was Phoenician, and it wasn’t even binary – it was base-zero! And back then no one had ever heard of ASCII or EBCIDIC – we didn’t even have an alphabet until we invented our own!

And you tell that to the young people of today and they won’t believe ya, nope!

I didn’t do much at all today. I stayed in bed until 9:00 and then had breakfast. Then I lazed around the house in my sweats & bathrobe for an hour or so while I read the Internet. I got dressed around 11:00 and went outside to gather sticks up from the yard. I had been thinking I would burn my brush pile today, but it was pretty wet. I’m pretty sure I could burn a wet brush pile, but it would take way more effort than I felt like making today. So it’s still there. I do want to burn it before the snow melts, because then I won’t need to get a fire permit. I imagine that today was my last opportunity for that this season though. I’ll either wait for it to snow again, or I’ll get a fire permit.

After picking up all the sticks that were poking up out of the snow, I went in, and watched most of the first half of The Return of the King with Beth on DVD (now that we have finished the book). I really wish they had not killed off Saruman in the movie the way they did. They could have left him locked in the tower and reserved the Scouring of the Shire for a fourth film.

At lunchtime, Va, Beth, and I went to Tilton and ate a Chili’s. Then I bought a new pair of shoes, and then we came on home. After a while, Jonathan and I headed over to the school to see if we could make any progress on the Internet connection there.

His laptop came with Windows 7 on it, though he usually boots it into Ubuntu Linux. But the tech at HughesNet couldn’t handle a non-Windows machine, and that’s why we brought Jonathan’s laptop. To my surprise, it DID connect, even though the modem didn’t give us an IP address. I’ll have to ask around about how on earth that could possibly work, because it doesn’t make any sense to me. At all.

Confusion and surprise aside, we were able to confirm that we were receiving no signal from the satellite, and Hughes promised to dispatch a tech to realign our dish. They will call me tomorrow to make arrangements, and I expect they’ll be out in a day or two. In short, the school will not have Internet access for a couple more days.