XP Migration – don’t get left behind

upgrade

XP migration need not be a nightmare!

I was asked a question on Monday that I hoped I would not hear it was “This XP thing, if we do nothing, what will really happen?”

This was a question from the person in charge of IT at my “day job” like a lot of small companies her role includes a lot more than just IT and often as not it was the IT that tended to get shunted to the end of the list. With my professional hat on and because I was a company user, I had hoped that my lectures on the need to move from XP to something more modern (delivered since Autumn of 2013) had not fallen on deaf ears but guessed that time and money both the enemies of our business had once again worked their evil spell and the chances of anything changing before 8th April 2014 was now remote.

The experts are fairly clear on this and according to them it is likely XP will be targeted by hackers support ends. But my overworked colleague is not the only one wondering if she can get away with doing nothing at all! It is estimated that as many as 30 per cent of firms have not upgraded from XP which begs the question why?

1. Cost: aside from the investment in new machines, there is also the time and money to do the upgrade. The company I work for uses an IT firm and one can guess that they will be looking for many thousands of pounds to do the work. But this needs to be set against the dangers of the loss of private data which could incur fines and the loss of productivity since a single compromised machine could bring the entire network of a business to a halt. It was mentioned that since my firm is small and unimportant they were unlikely to be targeted, a comment which simply proves the need for IT experts in all businesses! An upgrade to Windows 8 now could save thousand in the medium to long term.

2. Time: Many businesses are concerned about the time it will take to migrate to another operating system; it can take larger firms up to 30 months. Small firms can install and migrate in a fairly short space of time. I estimate the 100 or so machines we would only need 300-350 hours of install and migration time and with a server install this time could be reduced still further. Once you have completed the upgrade the time savings will be huge.

3. Training: I hear this one a lot, my own company is concerned that staff won’t adapt to the new operating system and while this may be true for some staff, many will already have Windows 7 or 8 in their homes and be used to using Android or IOS systems on their mobile devices. Often concerns like these will be more about the issues of senior management who are occasional users compared to their staff who will adapt easily. Which lead us neatly to the last item…
4. Fear of the new: Many businesses stick with XP simply because they are used to it and believe their staff are the same. They’ll trot out hardware excuses and concerns about some older application, but XP is more than a decade old and feeling its age. Even if it continued to be supported by Microsoft it is losing ground to its younger siblings and companies need to think that poor performance means poor productivity. In business outputs are all so it always surprises me that SME will often tolerate IT that would be more suited to an episode of “Flog It!” even though it costs them money they don’t have!

The message is clear, fail to upgrade at your own risk, you could be fine (for a while) or you could see your entire network corrupted. The danger is real and any reasonable prediction sees would be hackers trying out any and all vulnerabilties – simple because they can!

As for my lot in the day job, well I would not be surprised if they are not calling for the PCBloke in the very near future!

Sandbox your XP machine post-April 2014

English: Trial factoring by Prime95 (Windows X...

English: Trial factoring by Prime95 (Windows XP design) Deutsch: Prime95 bei der Probedivision (Windows-XP-Design) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are still using XP after April, I’ve found a useful tip.

 

Stay away from administrator accounts!

 

Malware can only do as much damage as the account it infects. Admin accounts give baddies complete access to your computer

 

Once Windows XP stops being patched, stick to using a Limited account for your day-to-day activities if at all possible.

 

Use an admin account to create the locked-down login and stock it with the software you need. Only use the admin account when installing or uninstalling software. keeping our previous program advice in mind—and then don’t stray from Limited land unless you need to install or update software and even then, only stick in the admin account for as long as is absolutely necessary to get the installation done.

 

This is a not a perfect solution, you are still advised to migrate to another operating system, but might keep you safe until you have saved for your new machine.

 

XP after April 2014 – Virtual Machines

 

This (german) screenshot shows: KDE 3.5 (scree...

This (german) screenshot shows: KDE 3.5 (screen depth 1024*786) the RealVNC-client connected to the Xvnc-server (it’s not really visible because it’s working “in the background”) which is showing another KDE-Session with running OpenOffice.org Writer 2. All shown software (probably except for the Winamp icon) is free (licenced as GPL) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re upgrading to Windows 8 or even Windows 7 Home, Windows XP Mode is not included. If you really want to use Windows XP in a virtual machine, you’ll have to get a boxed copy of Windows XP—if you have an old one, that will work—and install it inside a virtual machine. You don’t have to buy virtual machine software—the free VirtualBox andVMware Player will both work fine.

Virtual machines will allow you to run most types of Windows XP applications, but not all of them. If an application needs direct access to a piece of hardware, it may not work.

Note that Microsoft is also ending support for Windows XP Mode and Windows XP in virtual machines on April 8, 2014. However, if you have to run Windows XP, running it in a virtual machine on a modern version of Windows is much more secure than running Windows XP as your primary operating system.

XP to Linux – Keep it simple!

Linux Mint 11

Linux Mint 11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

For many of my clients and people I have spoken to, the prospect of moving from Windows XP to something else has provoked annoyance, outrage and in many cases a blank refusal to accept that they need to do anything. The fact of the matter is that in April Microsoft will stop all support for XP desktops and the first well designed piece of malware that hits the net will (potentially) have the power to wreck havoc on XP machines. Whether that actually happens only time and malware will tell, but this blog post is for the people who don’t want to take the risk and

 

a) Decide to migrate to another operating system and;
b) Do not want to spend money on a new computer.

 

That really means a Linux Operating System. Linux at time of writing is about 150 free open source operating systems, covering a range of PC hardware. Just about any computer from the last 10-15 years will run some form of Linux distribution or “Distro.” But one of the weakness of Linux from the point of view of the new user is the sheer number of operating systems – which one is the best?

 

From the point of view of someone an XP user and at the risk of annoying the various distro fans out there I think you can narrow the choice to 3

 

1) Lubuntu – an OS decided for systems with no a lot of RAM and low powered processors. Pentium 4 Pentium M and the like and less than a gigabyte of RAM
2) Linux Mint – for more powerful systems, dual core processors and more than a gigabyte of RAM
3) Ubuntu – Modern processors, i series, 2 gigabytes of RAM and better

 

There are numerous caveats to this list but it’s a good starting point for a beginner.

 

Zorin market a heavily customised version of Linux with a strong Windows “feel” it needs a fairly good machine to run the eye candy but might make the transition easier. I will do a blog post on Zorin in the near future

 

One consolation for the XP user coming to terms with Linux is that in addition to the OS Linux will come with lots of software, typically, an office suite, usually Open Office or Libre Office, Audio and Video players, image software, PDF readers and much much more. To add to the bargain, literally thousands more pieces of software can be downloaded using a dedicated download device built into the operating system. No hunting around trying to find what you want only to discover you have downloaded all sorts of nasties in the process.

 

However anyone hoping to use Microsoft Office or Quicken or another MS programme will be disappointed. It is possible to get some software to run under Windows but I would always advise beginners to look to some of the alternatives. http://linuxappfinder.com/alternatives

 

Most distros will come with a Live CD, DVD, or USB flash drive version appropriate for the user that wants to try it out before committing to an installation. ‘

 

If this all sounds too good to be true there are downsides. Linux is not Windows so there is a new thing to learn, even downloading new software can be daunting to the uninitiated.  There is a good chance your printer or scanner may not work and all your carefully purchased Win XP software is just a mini Frisbee collection!  Against that, the big Linux Distros update twice a year cost nothing to run come with all the software available for free and Linux is virtually virus proof.

 

Is it for me?

 

If you are a power user of Microsoft products probably not, if you spend time on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and browsing the web for Lolcats the chances are you will hardly notice the difference. Chrome and Firefox work perfectly well in Linux and some users may even enjoy a new challenege.
Links
Information on Ubuntu http://www.ubuntu.com/

 

Using Synaptic to download software in Ubuntu https://help.ubuntu.com/community/SynapticHowto

 

Information on Linux Mint http://www.linuxmint.com/

 

Information on Zorin, the Windows Friendly Distro http://zorin-os.com/

 

List of Linux operating systems http://distrowatch.com/

 

 

 

 

A quick guide to Linux Part 1

There are numerous flavors, or “distributions,” of Linux, each offering a distinct experience for a particular taste or purpose. All are based on the Linux kernel, which is its core OS code. On top of that kernel, distributions may add different desktop environments, applications, and features.

Ubuntu and Linux Mint are two of the more popular contenders. But a quick glance at DistroWatch, which keeps tabs on most distributions, shows just how vast the pool of choices is. Most distros, as they’re called, are easily customizable, whether with industry-specific apps and modules or varied graphical interfaces. That said, the more your base Linux package delivers what you want, the less time you’ll spend tweaking it.

How do you pick the right distro? An online chooser such as this one is a good place to start. For a more complete consideration, break down the decision in terms of what you have and what you need. On the “what you have” side, there are three primary considerations for business users: the niche you’re in, the hardware you’re using, and the Linux skills your staff has.

Your niche: Some Linux distributions focus very narrowly on particular industries. Scientific Linux is produced by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the

Captura de la distribución Linux llamada "...

Linux Mint

European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Another niche example is EduBuntu, a variation of Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux tailored for classrooms and schools.

Your hardware: As touchscreen features are being incorporated within OSs, such as Windows 8 and Ubuntu Linux, your hardware can make a big difference. Linux has always been an excellent choice for less-than-cutting-edge hardware. If your PCs are resource-limited, then consider a lightweight distro such as Puppy Linux, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Bodhi, or Damn Small Linux.

Your skills: Have you or your employees ever used Linux before? If not, choose a distribution that’s friendly for beginners, such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS, Zorin OS, or the new Linux Lite. Distributions like Gentoo and Slackware, on the other hand, are probably best for users with more experience. Numerous distros fall somewhere in between.

As for the “what you need” side of the equation, there are three key considerations: application support, mobile support, and user support—i.e., employee hand-holding.

Must-have software: Is there software your business just can’t do without, such as Microsoft Office? For most, an excellent open-source equivalent is probably already available in the Linux world’s equivalent of an app store, for nearly any distro. Just in case, though, check the offerings before you pick a distro.

OSalt lists open-source alternatives to popular proprietary software. If you can’t locate what you want, find out if the proprietary app you rely on has already been made to run on the Linux flavor you’re considering. You can even run Windows apps on Linux with help from Wine or CrossOver Linux.

Mobile support: If your business relies heavily on mobile devices, pick a distro and apps that play well with them, which generally means one of the bigger names. The Ubuntu One cloud storage offering for Ubuntu Linux, for instance, offers clients for both Android and iOS. In the realm of desktop applications, GnuCash offers an Android app, while LibreOffice offers one that enables remote presentations.

User support: How much hand-holding would you like for the Linux transition? The majority of the big Linux distributions offer paid support. For your small or medium-size business, however, it depends on the skills you have in-house, and how much effort you can expend to resolve issues that might come up. Virtually every Linux distro has an active online community of developers and users, so check out the forums for a sense of the kind of help they offer.

Finally, before committing to a desktop Linux distro, take a commitment-free test-drive, such as via Live CD or Live USB. That way, even if you decide against the OS, you’ll have lost nothing. If you love it, however, then go ahead and install.

Make yourself at home

Ubuntu Linux’s app store invites you to explore.

So you’ve found and installed a Linux distribution you like. What now? Play around on the desktop to make it comfortable. Set your preferences, choose wallpaper, and check out the preloaded apps. Most every Linux distro comes with a default desktop environment, which determines the look and feel of pretty much everything you see. Most offer alternative options as well. If you don’t like your default look and feel, you can swap in numerous others.

The mobile-inspired GNOME 3 is the default desktop in many of the bigger Linux distros, including Fedora, while Unity (also mobile-inspired) is what you get in Ubuntu. A growing number of newer distros, including SolusOS and Fuduntu, display more classic default desktops based on the style of GNOME 2.

If you dislike your default desktop, check out the alternatives. KDE and Enlightenment (E17) are generally considered the most visually appealing desktops, while Xfce and LXDE are minimal and lightweight. This Wikipedia page offers a nice glimpse. Keep in mind that the more similar your distro is to the OS you and your staff have been using, the shorter your learning curve will be.

Get the apps you need

GIMP can replace Photoshop.

There’s no need to waste time searching the Web to find software. Instead, software for Linux is available in what’s known as the software repository, similar to an app store. For Ubuntu Linux, that’s the Ubuntu Software Center; but for the most part, each distro has its own equivalent (to find it, look in the administrative menu of your OS). Typically, software there is vetted, reviewed, and safe to download.

A tool called the package manager lets you find and download software from the repository. If you’re looking for an equivalent to a big-brand, commercial application, OSalt is a good place to start. Wikipedia has a nice list as well.

You’ll find user reviews for most of the following apps in the Ubuntu Software Center. For other distros, try Gizmo’s Freeware site as well as OSalt. The following popular, free, and open-source business applications will often already come bundled with your Linux distro:

LibreOffice includes free alternatives to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Office productivity: LibreOffice is the most widely used open-source option. However, OpenOffice, Calligra Office, and the non-open-source, online-only Google Apps each have their own advantages.

Accounting: Though not open source, QuickBooks is often held up as a reason for not switching to Linux. Its availability in browser-based form removes that obstacle. Also available is the free and open-source GnuCash.  GnuCash can do most of what QuickBooks does.

Database Management: MariaDB, Eclipse BIRT, and Actuate. A 2010 Forrester report compares these and other options.

Web browser: Firefox and Chrome are the two biggest options for Linux users. Firefox integrates nicely with Thunderbird for email, but the choice between the two mostly comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Email and shared calendarsMozilla Thunderbird is probably the most widely used desktop email client, while Gmail and Google Apps for Business online are also good.

Graphics: GIMP is the default graphics package included by nearly every distro, and it’s excellent.

Desktop publishing: Scribus offers a user-friendly interface, along with support for professional publishing features such as color separations, CMYK and spot colors, ICC color management, and versatile PDF creation.

Backup: Amanda and Bacula are good open-source backup options, but Amanda tends to be viewed as more mature. Amanda Enterprise offers extra business-focused features.

Remote desktop access: To access a user’s PC from afar, rdesktop, RealVNC, and FreeNX are popular options.

CD and DVD as LT storage?

The most widely used forms of optical media ar...

The most widely used forms of optical media are DVDs and compact discs. Shown is a CD-ROM (left) and a game in Nintendo’s proprietary optical disc format similar to a MiniDVD. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1994 there was an article in the British music journal The Wire claiming  compact discs would have a life of about ten years, references to the article appeared in in Scientific American making. Problem with that is that you only need to talk to a few friends who will happily inform you that they have had their CD of ___ fill in the blank for 12years or more. But another poll of friends is bound to find one or two who have tried to read back data from relatively young CDs and failed. As a rule manufacturers will claim their products will be usable for something like 100 years. A figure some have suggested has more to do with the fact that in a hundred years no one will be around to contest the assertion.  Sceptics say 5 to 10 years is more like it but that lifespan may have more to do with substandard disks in which the aluminium oxidized after a short time. But again this will depend on use. A disk accessed daily will fail faster than one accessed monthly or even yearly.

Let’s have a look at the two most common kinds of disk.

The modern Compact Disc-Read Only Memory (CD-ROM), is a type of optical disk capable of storing large amounts of data – up to 1GB (gigabyte) the large capacity version tend to be expensive while the most common size is 650MB approximately sized version can be found in any supermarket or many other outlets. To give some idea of capacity a single CD should be able to store around 300,000 text pages.

Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) is a type of optical disk technology and is the go to format for most films (high definition is changing this) DVD can also be used to store data. For reference a DVD can store about 1,400,000 text pages.

CD-Recordable and DVD-R can be recorded once, after which the disc becomes read-only.

CD-RW/DVD-RW are Re-Writable.RW discs can be written to multiple times but the film layer on RW discs breaks down faster rate than CD-R/DVD-R discs, especially with frequent recording and re-writing.

What this proves is that as a long term storage medium, CDs and DVDs are not your best option, but CD and DVD can provide a solution for data which in theory at least could be safe for around a decade and if you are looking for safer could be a stop gap in your data storage strategy.

Next time I’ll be looking at USB storage.

How safe is your data?

English: I took this picture.
Is your data backed-up, what are your options?

A few months ago I did a repair job on a nice little custom build rig which while getting on a bit was still perfectly good for browsing and office productivity. The machine was badly infected and combined with less than helpful install of Vista lead me to opt for a fresh install of Windows 7. While copying over all the data for I noticed a lot of image files coming down the USB cable. Having developed a nose for these things over the years I checked with the client on delivery of the now speedy rig what as to what was stored on the PC. It turned out to be an extensive collection of pictures of the client’s children. I asked about back-ups and got the reply that it was something she was planning to get around to, time permitting.

Fast forward six months and I was asked to spec for a laptop for same client. After a quick whizz round Misco and Ebuyer I was able to come up with a nice desktop replacement. I happened to ask about backing up the images and was told it still hadn’t happened but obviously it was something they needed to do. I left it at that.

My PC Bloke crystal ball (Capacitive screen and powered by Android, of course) showed a scene in about a year where the PC HDD failed. If it proved to be a problem with the MBR or Windows no problem, but if the drive completely failed then not only would it be beyond my talents but the cost of professional drive recovery would be a painful lesson in the benefits of keeping back-ups.

So why all the fuss? In simple terms, just how important is your data? Check your computer right now and add up all the following:

  • Word files
  • Excell files
  • PDFs
  • Images files (.jpg .png .tif .jpeg)
  • Video files (.avi .mp4 .mov . flv)
  • Sound files (.mp3 .ogg .3gp)

The chances are there are more of these than you realised. You could well have many gigabytes of information stored on your computer.

Now what would happen if your PC decided to die tomorrow?

In my home, all the files are backed up to Network Attached Storage which can be reached from any and all machines in the house, including the Android phones. Key files are also backed to MS Skydrive and Dropbox and some are saved to USB keys and DVDs. One DVD of very important image and document data lives at the home of a friend living a few miles away. While this kind of back up is probably PC Bloke more than the average user. But I have image files that only exist electronically and other data which if I lost would not be recoverable, hence the borderline paranoia and when it comes to not losing your data paranoia if probably no bad thing. But there are some simple precautions you can take to ensure your data is safe.

Once data is corrupt it’s lost unless you plan to pay literally hundreds of pounds to a professional data recovery company and even then they may fail. Even if you back-up your data, media can fail and let you down. Safe options may seen onerous and even over the top but once that data is gone the chances are you have lost it forever.  So how much time and money is caring for your data worth to you, that’s the first question you need to ask with that information you can plan your back up strategy.

In the next instalment I’ll walk you through the storage options, from CDs to your own home server.

The PC Bloke

BT “Won’t someone please think of the children!”

BT Ireland logo (2005 - Present)

BT Ireland logo (2005 – Present) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to argue againtst anything that helps to protect children online, but BT’s new network-level filter system will block access to sites promoting proxies and anonymisers as well as those promoting pornography and there are many good reasons why people want to surf the web privately that don’t include sex sites.

We learnt on Friday that  BT flicked the switch on its promised system to supposedly help to protect kids in the UK from sex/drugs/violence/etc online, in the hope of preventing regulatory meddling from Whitehall. Not good news for the ever growing body of people worried ab0ut how the net is being censored.  New subscribers will be forced to opt-out of BT’s censorship machine, while existing customers will be nagged to switch on the system early next year. The actual impact on the hard core illegal activities that this move is supposed to target will be effectively zero and driving the sites even further underground will only provide more profit-making opportunities for the porno producers.

In the meantime  me and people like me will continue to point out that if you can filter porn content at this level you can filter other content as well. Paranoid? Perhaps, I certainly hope so!   http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/12/17/bt_parental_controls_will_block_proxies_and_anonymiser_sites/

Munich goes open source

Munich’s switch to open-source software has been successfully completed, with the vast majority of the public administration’s users now running its own version of Linux, city officials said Thursday.

Munich managed to create over 14,800 LiMux workspaces for its approximately 15,500 desktops.  Full story here http://www.pcworld.com/article/2079800/switch-to-open-source-successfully-completed-city-of-munich-says.html#tk.fb_pc

XP alternatives – Apple, Linux and ChromeOS

Windows XP screenshot

Windows XP screenshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it time for you to dump Windows XP, or maybe even to abandon Windows altogether?

The net has come a long way since the days when XP wowed us all with it’s flash good looks and for some time now Windows has not been the only game in town but is still far and away the biggest. But Microsoft are about to end all support for XP and the danger for the average user is a retro-engineered virus designed for a Windows 7 or 8 machine will happily compromise the code in its older brother.

If you’re still running Windows XP, making the switch to Windows 8.1—or to Windows 7 could be more than just inserting a CD and following instructions – your current hardware may not be able to handle a newer Windows OS (XP is by modern standards a lightweight OS capable of running on something like 128kb of RAM albeit slowly, compare that to Windows 8 which Microsoft claims will run on 1GB of RAM – see the notes at the end of this article.)

But if you’re going to pay £90 or so for W8, you may as well consider some of the other options before you hand over the plastic. Mac, Linux and ChromeOS have come a long way in the last decade so lets have a little peek at the competition.

Mac OS X
Traditionally seen as more expensive that it’s Windows competition recently prices have come down. There is little doubt that Apple wins any PC beauty contest. Mac OSes are a better security choice than Windows and Apple will charge a lot less for their upgrades than Microsoft. The latest version, is free and comes with its own productivity suite (iWorks), and boasts proficient email, note-taking, calendaring, media-playing, image-editing, and instant messaging applications. If you have must use Windows programs they can be run as a virtual machine using Parallels.

On the downside you will have to replace all your existing software and there may not be Mac equivalents of everything you own. Of course the same may apply on the upgrade path from say XP to Windows 8.1

Linux
If you want to go open source and save your hard earned cash Linux is the right choice for you, generally Linux will work on older kit and has a reputation for breathing new life into otherwise defunct computers. Distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint are easily comparable to XP or Windows 7 and Linux is the go to operating system for many servers across the globe.

Linux is usually free – there are some commercial versions out there – and will come with the ability to download more software like Open Office, image editing, VOIP applications, email clients etc at no cost. You can choose from various user interface desktop environments, such as KDE and GNOME, and if you like you can install or create a desktop environment that is virtually identical to Windows XP. Security is excellent, malware is hard to deliver on a Linux machine which makes it an ideal browsing OS

On the downside you need to find and download alternatives for all your favoured software. There is no official support so you’ll find yourself haunting the various forums if anything goes wrong and essentially you are learning computers again from the ground up. My Linux users would content this is no bad thing.

Chrome OS
Chrome OS, developed by Google, is the new kid on the block. It’s a Web-centric platform that basically makes the browser itself the operating system, software as a service (SaaS) Security. The system runs little in the way of client systems. It works nicely with other Google services and with the Google Android OS found on many phones. On the other hand if you are not part of the Google collective than much of the appeal of ChromeOS goes. Because most of Chrome OS’s capabilities are tied to cloud-based services and resources, the functionality of Chrome OS is severely limited if you lack an Internet connection and away from an ethernet connection may be limited by wireless connectivity. Google recently showcased Chrome Apps that can run offline, but they’re a long way behind their Linux and Apple compatriots.

Conclusions

For anyone who has been clinging to XP for the past few years, the migration experience regardless of your choice is likely to be painful. There will be costs no matter which path you choose some financial some interlectual: If you choose Windows there is a chance your older machine may not even have the power to run the new OS and the drivers for peripherals may not exist. If you choose Apple there is the price of a new machine and software an again peripherals could be a problem; if you choose Linux you’ll have a learning curve which some small businesses can ill afford; chances are your perpherals will work but getting them there could be a challenge and finally, ChromeOS will be seen by many as simply a tablet style browsing toy.

For more information or assistance with migration contact me ron.cook@gmail.com

Windows 8 minimum requirements.

The list below is the absolute rock bottom requirements
32bit Windows 8 needs = 1GB of RAM,
64bit = 2GB of RAM
The 32bit version can only use RAM to a max of 3GB
16GB of hard disk space to run a 32bit installation
20GB for a 64bit system.

These are extremely low figures realistically your system is likely to need

3GB RAM – 32bit
4GB RAM – 64bit (8GB might be better)
500GB hard disk space unless you intend to add nothing at all to your install