The Entrepreneurial Free Agent and Dejobbed Small Business R&D Lab
Table of Contents
Below we share some of our 'secret sauce'... that is, we'll tell you how we set-up and maintain our Windows-based computers at Sohodojo. These are hard-won insights that will help you avoid the kind of devastating destruction in your SOHO office that the good folks of Hope Town, Abaco Islands, Bahamas suffered in 1999 in the wake of Hurricane Floyd.
We use Intel-based personal computers for our intranet hardware. All our computers are multi-boot configurations with some combination of Windows 98 and either Windows NT, Linux and/or BeOS.
Our home-based, in-house intranet server is an NT-based laptop so we can go mobile anywhere in the growing Free Agent Nation. It runs typical NT services as well as an Apache HTTP server, a Netmosphere Collaboration server and a Fujitsu TeamWare Dolphin server.
Jim's development machine runs our in-house ZOPE server, CVS source control and other development-oriented services.
Timlynn's machine, an aging 200 MHz Pentium with 64 MB of RAM, runs fast and clean (although we don't burden it with intranet server services).
An antique laptop runs as a dedicated WinProxy proxy server so our 56K modem connection can be securely shared by any machine on our intranet. (We've been happily using WinProxy for well over a year and prefer it, a full-featured proxy server, over the stripped-down connection-sharing now built into Windows 98, second edition.)
Yes, there is a Macintosh. A single, aging Levco Prodigy runs Comic Strip Factory to create the art work for our ensemble-based, character-driven 'nano-subsidiary business' at Squirrelfeeders.com. (That's a 1984 vintage 'Fat Mac' enhanced with an add-in daughterboard which sported the then unheard-of blazing 16 MHz 68020 with a whooping 4 MB RAM. Cost for the board in 1984? $10,000 on top of the cost of the Mac! Add a couple thousand more for the 21" monochrome monitor and you know why it is still working off its indentured servitude at Sohodojo!)
An Amiga 2000 maintains a place of honor at the dojo to remind us how great a personal computer can be and, unfortunately, that better mousetraps are no guarantee of success.
It all comes down to software...
The tips we share below are in support of our use of Windows 98/NT. We buy computers based on these Microsoft operating systems because they are nearly dirt cheap in the bang-for-the-buck department. But more importantly, we use them because of the DIZZYING ARRAY of GREAT SOFTWARE available to Windows users. And software, after all, is what makes any computer useful and entertaining.
But what about Linux, BeOS, FreeBSD and whatever other alternative operating system you might want to run on your computer? Well, reality is that these OSes are interesting and useful in this or that capacity. But, make no mistake. No operating system available has anything close to the rich and diversified range of free and affordable software that you will find under Windows.
So, let's have it both ways. Let's avoid the religious OS Wars. We'll tell you how we set up our machines to run multiple operating systems so you can comfortably switch to the best tool and system for the job. You don't need to choose, you can have them all.
And, please, don't run lemmng-like from Windows because you buy into the misinformation and propaganda about how terrible Windows is and how wonderful operating system "X" is. It just ain't so. We have fast, robust Windows machines that we depend on and enjoy using every day. You can, too.
If you take the time and personal responsibility to configure and maintain your Windows 98 computer, you will live in a productive and entertaining world of rich diversity and competitive choices in software unimaginable to users of any other operating system.
Firstly, the out-of-the-box desktop configuration of your Windows 98 machine is compromised. Fragile by virtue of its bastardized initial set-up, it is no wonder that most folks experience a less than happy life under Windows.
Bad turns worse as we delve into the rich commercial, shareware and freeware offerings that each have their unbridled way with our machines. Messing with our registries, overwriting this or that link library with whatever version they prefer, many such little 'attacks' chip away at your system performance and stability.
But we want it all. We want to have the fun and freedom of this Windows software bonanza, and we want reliable, productivity-enhancing results. We have it, now. We had to learn a lot to get there.
Here's a crash course in what we learned.
It's a silk-purse, sow's ear thing...
You can't make the manufacturer's 'stock' configuration right.
The computer market is so price sensitive these days that manufacturers have to 'sell the desktop' to keep in business. The result is that your new computer is chuck full of bogus, worthless stuff that not only takes up space, it makes your computer unstable and sluggish.
We didn't mind when a 'software bundle' was just a bunch of dormant applications the manufacturer pre-loaded on your new machine. You could simply find the installation directories and blow the stuff away. But today, they sink their hooks in deeper.
Intrusive software is installed on your new machine that is supposed to make it 'kinder and gentler' and more supportable. In the name of helping you, your new machine is crippled. It's like a hot new sports car laden with excessive pollution controls... you know, the kind that reduce emissions, in theory, but create more pollution in practice.
Anyway, this hobbling of your new computer is nobody's fault. It isn't something to be corrected. It is the marketplace at work.
That $1,800 computer that would have cost $3,600 last year... well, taking personal responsibility for setting up and maintaining your system yourself is a small price to pay for this marketplace-driven savings.
Once home, it's yours, take charge and enjoy...
As personal private property, nobody can keep you from making your new computer right. Your computer manufacturer can't waltz in and insist you set up your computer the lame way they sold it to you. Don't leave this important responsibility to your computer manufacturer.
We accept that once we re-work our system set-up, we're on our own as far as tech support goes from the manufacturer. You are still under hardware warranty and all that, but your ability to get real answers from help center folks goes way down when you don't run under their crazy default configuration. But since you will be having a more stable, better performing machine after re-building it yourself, cutting the tether from your manufacturer's help desk is no loss.
Two things will keep you back from doing this total rebuild: the software bundle that comes on your out-of-the-box configuration, and your desire to put a new computer to work too fast.
As to the loss of pre-installed 'freebies', there are two possibilities. A good manufacturer will provide a selective install on the 'disaster recovery' CD-ROM discs that come with your system. If you are lucky, you can selectively snag these bundled titles. If not, forget them.
You should NOT factor in the 'suggested retail' value of an arbitrary software bundle into your machine purchase decision. Buy for hardware value alone. Then factor in the software you really want and need. Don't expect the bundled packages to be your trusted long-term solutions.
The second factor keeping you from a radical rework of your machine, that is, putting it to work too fast, can be easily corrected. Around the dojo we have a guideline: we don't expect a new computer to be on-line and usable for at least two weeks from the time it comes in the door.
The manufacturer's disaster recovery CD-ROMs let us erase our worst mistakes and get back to at least the screwy way the machine was sold. So, we use this two-week window to have a major go at making our new computer run like a Ferrari instead of a '72 Chevy Nova.
Our 'Fresh start, Clean sweep' starts with the hard disk...
You don't have to look far to find advice saying that you should partition your huge hard drive into multiple, logical partitions. That is, you want to carve your gigantic 'C' drive into smaller 'C', 'D', 'E', 'F' drives, and so on. The theory is that since a hard drive can get irretrievably corrupted, it's best to hedge your bets and spread your stuff out across multiple partitions, any one of which may crap out leaving the rest of your stuff intact.
Opinions differ, however, about how many partitions of what type to create and what to put on them. Here's how we do it...
Our standard partition layout
Let's look at a set-up for a multi-boot computer to run Win98, NT and Linux. If you don't want or need these alternative operating systems, simply eliminate their partitions from the set-up below.
Assuming a roughly 18-20 Gigabyte (GB) hard drive (adjust proportionally to fit your drive), the Sohodojo recommended hard drive set up is as follows:
Three Primary partitions... each bootable as drive 'C'
One 8-10 GB extended partition
Under a multi-boot setup, each of the OS-specific primary partitions above gets a chance to be booted as the drive 'C' of this system. The parenthetical drive letters, ('D') for example, are drive assignments you will see under Windows 98. Operating systems which do not yet recognize FAT32 format will not see the VAULT and LIMBO partitions and the drive letters will be adjusted accordingly.
Okay, we have a strategy for how we want to lay out our hard disk partitions. How do you confidently carve up your drive to implement this strategy? One answer: PowerQuest's PartitionMagic 4.0.
PartitionMagic, this must-have utility deserves its name
PowerQuest built its now wide-ranging utility software brand on the phenomenal success of its landmark utility, PartitionMagic. It is the only software we trust and use to do hard drive partitioning.
With PartitionMagic, you don't even have to get it right the first time. If it turns out that the formula above is long on the NT side and short on the Linux side of things: back up, adjust your drive's partition sizes, say 'Go!', walk away and come back when the nearly impossible task of low-level munging your hard drive is done.
As a bonus with your purchase of PartitionMagic, you will get a copy of BootMagic. This is the multi-boot manager we use and recommend. BootMagic makes it transparently simple to boot among the three operating systems installed on this example computer. Squish each one down a bit and you could toss BeOS on there as well. BootMagic will handle it.
What goes where?
Take a second look at the above list and notice the format, total size and the cluster size of each drive. (In the not too distant future, Microsoft 2000 will allow this strategy to be modified since this NT-successor will be FAT32-aware.) Notice, too, that the partition name reveals its purpose. Here's a few additional comments about what each partition is about:
Hard drive maintenance and health - Rules to live by
Just carving up your hard drive and putting your data files here and there will not give you the stability, maintainability and performance that the above set-up affords. Once so laid out, we follow these rules of thumb:
Why does this set-up help stability and performance? It is relatively simple, really. We are relocating virtually everything transient AWAY from your OS partition. We want our OS partition to be as much a 'read-only' drive as possible. The fewer temporary reads and writes there are to this drive partition, the less chance there is that something will screw it up. Your OS partition will stay remarkable unfragmented as well when you stop writing and deleting tens of thousands of little transient files each day.
On being 'crash-friendly'...
Are we crash-proof? No. We like to explore and use lots of software from lots of sources, including beta applications and, worse, unfinished buggy stuff we write ourselves. With so many pieces of software from so many sources, it is unreasonable to think that our systems will be crash-proof. Nor do we blame one source or another for this inherent instability. It is a fact of life that doesn't hurt us. It is the price for access to a ton of exciting software unavailable to any other operating system.
Rather, we have gone for 'crash-friendly'. If and when we crash, it rarely screws anything up and our systems reboot in a flash. It's the price we pay for living in an exciting and diversified world of Windows software.
So, after we get our hard drive partitioned as described, how do we move things around to make our Win98 systems more reliable and better performing?
As good as they are, it amazes us that PACT Software's 12 Ghosts shareware utility suite is not more widely known and used. 12 Ghosts is a collection of 'micro-application' utilities which help you to customize and maintain your Windows 95/98/NT systems. They are among the first pieces of software we add to a freshly installed system.
If you don't have ProfileCopy, you are living dangerously
While there are many little utility gems within the 12 Ghosts collection, we'll highlight the one which truly makes our systems more stable and higher performing: ProfileCopy. You can buy it alone, but grab the whole collection. We need more thoughtful shareware authors like the good folks at PACT Software.
ProfileCopy does three VERY important things for us:
With a little help from your Ghost...
It is a little tricky to fully relocate all your profile-related System folders and related files. This is because so many of these portions of your system are 'live' all the time when your system is running. So you can't just move and delete these system folders while the system is running in normal mode. Here's how we do it using the ProfileCopy Ghost:
If you find that your system folders occasionally relocate themselves back to their default locations, you may have to do a little registry editing to completely eradicate vestigial entries which point to the old locations. (A 'find and replace' operation can hunt down these entries and change them to your intended locations.) But don't worry about registry editing until you see if your changes stay changed. (You can check your System folder locations using ProfileCopy.)
Moving your profile-related System folders off of your operating system boot drive (WIN98, 'C') is one of the most important things you can do to isolate your operating system partition from all the transient reading and writing that defragments and potentially corrupts your operating system drive.
Okay, you have your hard drive partitioned appropriately and your System folders are relocated using ProfileCopy, what's next? Keeping it that way and keeping it up and running is your biggest concern. That is the purpose of your back-up routine.
Back-ups. We all know we need to do them and they are among the first things to drop out of our busy schedules. That is because backing up was once a time-consuming and labor intensive activity. It need not be anymore, if you adopt a 'modern' approach to hard drive back-ups.
Too big for our own good?
It is no secret that hard drives have gotten HUGE and CHEAP, which is good. But, fact is, today's hard drives are so big, they go beyond the needs of most users. The unfortunate result of this boom in hard drive size is that most folks turn their computers into a BOTTOMLESS DUMPING GROUND.
If you take a lazy approach to computer use, that is, if you simply throw more and more software and data files onto your huge hard drive, you are asking for trouble.
Just in time and just enough...
Hard drives are SO big these days, that you can easily dedicate a large partition to be a 'staging area' for use in your 'modern' back-up routine. The VAULT partition described above is so-named to reflect its use in archiving important data. The VAULT is where you put your profile-related System folders AND it is where you store partition-image files of our WIN98 ('C') and MYDOX ('G') drives.
A partition-image back-up file is like a 'ZIP' archive file of a complete hard-drive partition. We use a specialized, DOS-based application to create and restore these image files. By enabling compression on the image creation process these back-up files, while huge, are manageable. For example, the WIN98 ('C') drive on Jim's computer -- which contained 914 MB of programs and data just prior to Floyd -- 'zipped' into an image-file 435 MB in size!
By backing up to a fast hard-drive, your back-up time is reduced by many magnitudes over using tape, CD-recordable, or other slow removable media. Once backed-up, we copy these huge image files to CD-R disks for archival back-up purposes. (CD-R/RW drives as so relatively slow when compared to a hard drive that you will NEVER want to tie your system up doing a back-up direct to recordable or rewritable media.)
Note that because we have moved all that transient temporary, caching and profile-related folders and files to dedicated drive partitions, creating a FULL IMAGE back-up of your operating system partition ('C') is very doable and well-advised. In effect, when copied to a CD-R or CD-RW disk, your full image-partition back-ups BECOME YOUR OWN, PERSONAL DISASTER RECOVERY CD-ROMs.
Follow the script... just do it!
An important aspect of adopting a modern approach to back-up is to make this a fully-automated, schedulable routine. To do this, your partition-imaging software must be scriptable. You must be able to write a simple DOS-based batch file to run your back-up application and tell it what to do.
Once you have a batch file that will automatically back up your two critical partitions, just do it! And, of course, do it regularly. We simply schedule this batch file to run every other day on each of our machines while we sleep.
We initially used PowerQuest's (that's the PartitionMagic folks) DriveImage product to do these partition back-ups. But PowerQuest has gotten greedy and small-business unfriendly.
The original $70 DriveImage was scriptable. Then PowerQuest introduced DriveImage Pro as an 'enterprise solution' and removed scripting from the affordable tool. PowerQuest now expects you to buy at least 10 seats of DriveImage Pro for $220 in order to get partition image back-up scripting!!!
This small business unfriendly attitude which characterizes PowerQuest's current preference for 'enterprise business' customers sent us looking for a competitive and affordable alternative to DriveImage.
The thirteenth Ghost in the machine...
We now use and recommend Norton's Ghost 2000 Personal Edition which retails for $63 stand-alone, or is included in the bonus bundle in SystemWorks Pro. Ghost is an excellent partition imaging and hard drive cloning solution.
While you could easily benefit from using either Ghost or DriveImage, the added benefit of scripting in Norton Ghost makes it our top pick in this utility category.
What's in a name? The 'Dead Rock Stars' intranet at Sohodojo
Once you have your VAULT partition in place and your partition imaging software installed, you are ready to give your newly rebuilt system that extra level of restorable security.
We use a simple file-naming convention to maintain our image archives.
By way of background, the Sohodojo intranet domain is called 'dead_rock_stars' and our machines are named: FRANK (Zappa), JIMI (Hendirx), STEVIE (Ray Vaughn), JERRY (Garcia) and JANIS (Joplin). We have installed some of CrazyFinger's alternative Windows start-up screens to remind us which machine is which, or rather which is who.
Our back-up file-naming convention is easy:
Using Norton Ghost, this would give us '091599_c_frank.gho' as the filename for Jim's WIN98 ('C') drive backed up on September 15th of this year. This gives us an easily readable, unambiguous name for each of our back-up images. Having such complete names is vital for organizing your off-line partition image archive using CD-R/RW disks.
Road Warriors, too, can use this approach to back-up
This 'full image back-up to hard drive' is a great insurance policy for Road Warriors using laptops. We used to travel with a completely cloned second hard drive when out on the road. Now we carry a Ghost-aware floppy disk and on-disk image files on the laptop's VAULT partition. This gives us the ability to completely restore a corrupted hard drive on the road with nothing more than a floppy in our laptop bag.