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So You Want To Be A Linux System Administrator?

Published on Nov. 1, 2010 at midnight by XC

I was digging through Server Fault today looking for some thoughts on CARP (think HSRP, just free) and came across an honest and interesting question. The author wanted to know what skills and experience would make him more desirable in the world of UNIX like operating systems. I began to answer his question and found myself writing an entire anthology as an answer, so I’m bringing it to my blog instead. A bit of background for those who don’t know me, I’m someone who hires programmers and system administrators. My business card says CTO and I’m not ‘part owner of a start-up’ (anyone who doesn’t get that joke wouldn’t appreciate it anyway), so I consider myself to be somewhat authoritative on the topic.

The first thing you need to do is stop thinking and saying the word ‘Linux’. I’m not going off on an idealistic tangent, I’m advising you to realize that you are working with a UNIX like operating system. Linux is an awesome kernel, your experience is rooted (no pun intended) mostly in user space. For now, get the word out of your head completely. Go meditate if you think it will help, I’ll wait. When you start thinking “UNIX that doesn’t suck”, continue reading. In a nutshell, if I’m going to hire you, it’s because I know you can figure out a solution to practically any problem that you might face.

Category: GNU
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Banning Airtelbroadband.In Due To Spam And No Response

Published on Sept. 24, 2010 at midnight by XC

Every day, I get at least 10 human submitted e-mails through my contact form that promise my blog can become #1 on the Internet. I’m sorry, and I don’t want to offend my visitors from India, but this is very typical for ISP’s in India. So long as a client pays and doesn’t attract government attention, let them do what they do .. seems to be the motto of that company. Every time it comes not only from another IP, but a whole new /20. Thankfully, their IP ranges are reversed.

In 24 hours, if airtelbroadband.in is your ISP, some parts of this web site will not work. I’m sorry, I have no other recourse.

I have contacted the listed abuse e-mail for airtelbroadband.in no less than ten times in two months. Radio silence.

Eat my string-matching fu, you spamming (but hard working) call center agents!

Category: Rants

Debunking Seo Myths And Old Webmaster’S Tales

Published on Aug. 6, 2010 at midnight by XC

Would you wear a tin foil hat if it thought it would help your page rank? I wouldn’t either, but you would be surprised what some people do in an effort to get more visitors to their web site. One of the most useful tags on Pro Webmasters is the SEO tag, we’re already working collaboratively to debunk or prove myths about search engine optimization. There are even several Google employees helping out by cautioning people to not try any crazy tricks to improve their ranking.

Who would have thought that the best way to attract visitors is to provide standards compliant semantically correct HTML documents that also offered interesting and useful content? I’ve known this for years, but it feels good to see my thoughts validated and endorsed by my peers.

If you have not already done so, check out Pro Webmasters. The questions are interesting, the community is friendly and the turn around to get an answer is often less than an hour. If your question has anything at all to do with maintaining or operating a web site, it is welcome there. Just try to ask questions that can be answered with facts and data vs opinion.

Category: Neat Things

On Q&A And Broken Windows

Published on July 13, 2010 at midnight by XC

Have you ever driven through a bad neighborhood with lots of rubbish blowing about and felt less guilty than you would otherwise by throwing a banana peel out of your car window? Perhaps an empty soda can? If you have, you’ve demonstrated what we call the broken window theory. Not surprisingly, the theory also applies to digital real estate, if you can accept that term long enough to finish this brief essay.

When most people get in their cars, they have every intention of arriving at a specific place in a certain amount of time. Some people just get bored and go for a drive. The Internet works this way as well, you might boot up your computer and go straight to e-mail, or wander around a bit. In either metaphor, both people have equal chances of driving through the same ‘digital’ neighborhoods.

I’m digressing into metaphors, so lets get to the point. One of the broadest reasons people use the Internet is to gain some kind of knowledge, though some may not realize that hidden intention when they start. If you want knowledge, its most conveniently obtained by asking a question. Q&A sites help ensure that your natural “how do I ...” question works in search engines, by providing results that they can index.
If I go to Stack Overflow, I find lots of very interesting and specific programming questions. If I go to Super User, I find lots of questions related to using computers in general.

No More Favors To Internet Explorer

Published on July 2, 2010 at midnight by XC

This is a short rant. I am not going to continue to work around a browser that does not adhere to standards, no matter how many people use what I wrote. If this site looks awkward for you, get a standards compliant browser. I am also officially ignoring any bug reports pertaining to stuff that I wrote not working correctly in various versions of Internet Explorer. I’d rather just issue you a refund than add kludges that will break in the future, only to add more kludges.

Try:

Firefox
Google Chrome
Opera
Konqueror
Or even lynx might be a better experience.

We have standards, the company that wrote Internet Explorer choses to ignore them, hence I won’t support it. Note, I’m not demeaning Lynx, I use it avidly.

Category: Programming

Rare Knowledge Is Often Unrewarded

Published on July 1, 2010 at midnight by XC

I was reflecting today on a joke koan that I read, somewhere, I can’t remember where (and I’ve added to it):

A locomotive breaks down and an engineer is called in to fix it. The engineer listens to the sounds of the locomotive, reaches in his tool box and pulls out a hammer. He crawls under the train, bangs four times on something and then crawls out from under the train. He looks at the manager, hands him an invoice and says “All fixed, boss.”

The manager looks at the invoice that says $1500.00 then says “All you did was whack it with a hammer four times!”

The engineer smiled and said “Whacking that piece with a hammer four times: $100. Knowing where and how to whack it: $1400. You got a break, I usually charge per hit.”

The manager was then enlightened.
I thought those who read this blog might enjoy that
I’m almost positive that I saw the original version of this on Stack Overflow, but I can’t seem to find it now. It could be that the post has since been deleted. If you know where it is, please leave a comment.

Category: Humor

Duplicating The Guts Of Giants

Published on July 1, 2010 at midnight by XC

We’re all impressed and fascinated with the inner workings of Stack Overflow. Its one of the few web based services that has actually impressed me. Every single button, link, label or sprite belongs exactly where it is. The tools provided are exactly adequate for users to accomplish what they want to do, no more – no less. That’s not surprising, the people who built the site have turned software usability into its own religion.

Its one of the few sites that I’ve ever seen that did not go overboard or too stringent with the use of AJAX. How do you know a great user interface? It doesn’t get in your way.

Breaking SO down into its basic useful and novel elements we have:

A voting system that catches and reverses most ‘fraud’ votes
A tagging system that scales well and is lightning fast
A revision control system that allows a convenient grace period
Algorithms to reward users for participating positively
A reputation system that lets SO trust each user up to a certain degree
A search built especially for ninjas

All of these are useful on their own outside of the context of Q&A, with the possible exception of the search. Again, I’m not dissing the search, just the results. Still, you could do very well to implement any number of these features into an application designed to let people find what they want with little effort. I’m trying to duplicate some of those building blocks, to a degree in a way that they can be re-used.

Category: Programming
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Shared Web Hosting Is Not Dead

Published on June 29, 2010 at midnight by XC

An old colleague of mine was telling me of his plans to finally, after almost fifteen years of working for someone else, start his own hosting venture. My first instinct was of course to offer this poor soul some Lithium, seeing that his existing salary as CTO is more than triple the amount of profit he could expect from a start up web hosting venture in the first few years. I listened patiently as he unveiled his plan to take over the universe one domain at a time when all of a sudden he completely shocked me:

“I’m not doing shared, too much hassle and nobody wants it. Cloud, baby! CLOUD!”

Interestingly, I was just in the process of setting up a re-seller account for another friend when he dropped in. I didn’t say much, I just let him finish. He was looking for a sympathetic ear and he found one, I am well known for being rather prolific in my development of tools to make Xen easier for web hosts. I don’t think he was expecting my reply, which was:

“All these years, and you still don’t get it.”

As a web host, you must accomplish several things to be successful:

Find and keep customers
Innovate without annoying customers
Find and keep rock star employees

Sure, there’s a little more, but the rest falls mostly on your data center if you are just getting started.

This list seems simple, but it isn’t. Lets go down the list one by one and you’ll quickly see that you are looking at several very deep rabbit holes.

Security And The Starving Kitten Problem

Published on June 18, 2010 at midnight by XC

I am known to be extremely pedantic when it comes to security. Why? I help to safe guard personally identifiable information. I’ve often said that proper security can almost never be convenient. In some instances, not following proper practices is effectively breaking the law (HIPAA). Yet, some users – in particular non technical managers, can not seem to grasp the fact that I can’t allow them access to certain things on their iPhone from a beach in Tahiti over open WiFi. More often than not, people only consider what they are trying to accomplish, not what any given system sees them as doing.

I’ve come up with a great analogy that some of you might find helpful in explaining why we can’t ‘change the system’ to allow certain things:

It is midnight. Inside of a locked bank is a locked bank vault. The vault contains two things, a giant stack of money and a starving kitten that is crying out for help. Two people are attempting to enter the bank – one of them a bank robber, the other one an animal lover. One wants the cash, the other wants to save the kitten.

There is no security system that is sufficiently complex to identify additional variables that may make threatening patterns seem benign. Additionally, if there were such a system, how would it distinguish between two entities with identical behavior? Sure, we could make our vault smarter in the first example to realize that it contained a starving kitten that someone would want to rescue. Now, which one of the two people trying to break in is the animal lover?

If you need money out of a bank’s vault – just apply for a loan. If you notice a kitten starving overnight, report it so someone with a key and the proper combination that can rectify the problem.

It is so very difficult to explain to non technical people the perils of adjusting the system to permit untrusted feline rescue efforts.

Category: Rants

Google Jumping Out Of Windows?

Published on June 2, 2010 at midnight by XC

The thing is, you never really know with Google. From the outside looking in, guessing at the internals of Google technology is just that, guessing. However, reports of some Google employees claiming that the giant is ditching Windows completely over security concerns following the incident in China are surfacing. I think that reporting is once again coming out way too early, and too much emphasis is being placed on the security aspect of what may or may not be an actual decision of the Google higher ups.

Lets take a look at what we know about Google, mostly from the code that they give us and what they’ve said in talks:

A significant amount of their search infrastructure is powered by the Linux kernel and some sort of compatible OS. We can consider this the first time they took what was available, made it fit their needs and rolled it into happy production.
Andriod uses the Linux kernel. This is the second time they took Linux, modified it to suit their needs and built a product around it.
Chrome OS uses the Linux kernel. This is the third time they took Linux, modified it to suit their needs and built a product around it.
Google is pro free/open source. The number of lines of code contributed to the world written by Google employees is staggering.

Category: Rants
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