Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Odyssey's IT department

Nearly a month ago, reader Blackeagle asked what we use here aboard Odyssey when we need to print something from our computers. I'm finally getting around to answering that question here, and, while I am at it, I thought I would share with you what our whole "information technology" (IT) setup looks like, and how we use it on a daily basis to simplify our lives. I'll try to keep the geek-speak to a minimum, since I know many of our readers are thinking about hitting the road and might find the information useful.

First, to answer the question as asked: we use a Cannon i80 ink-jet printer (what Cannon calls a "Bubble-Jet"), shown in this photo printing a shipping label:



We chose this printer simply because it was very compact, and space is at a premium on board. We don't print very much, so cost-per-page was not a big issue, nor the fact that the ink cartridges are harder to find than the more common desktop printers. Here's what the printer looks like folded up for storage:



I'd be willing to bet that this model is no longer available. And, if I were doing it over again today, I think I would look for something with built-in wireless networking. As it stands now, we have to set the printer up near whatever computer is doing the printing, since it's hard-wired, and "sharing" the printer means unplugging it from one computer and into the other.

Speaking of computers, we now have identical Gateway MX6930 laptop computers. Heaven forfend that we would have to share a computer -- most mornings we both spend well over an hour reading the morning news, answering email, and checking in with the various forums we each follow on-line. Geek that I am, I'd love to tell you that I arrived at this particular selection after exhaustive research, culminating in these being the pinnacle in price/performance for our usage, but the truth is somewhat more mundane.

Rather than rehash it all here, I will instead point you to this post, wherein I described how we ended up with the Gateways because we absoluteley would not buy new computers pre-loaded with Windows Vista. Also in that post, I describe why we need to run Windows, rather than changing over to my preference, Linux, or even to Macintosh. That's one of the Gateways, by the way, in the first photo above.

Window's dominance of the third-party application software market means we have little choice but to run a Microsoft operating system. However, I am now officially fed up with the proprietary software market, Microsoft chief among them, and have moved our software environment almost entirely to open source software whenever possible, and free software where open source is lacking. The only fee-for-license software we now use, besides Windows itself, are the mapping packages from DeLorme (Street Atlas USA 8, and Topo USA 6), and the stuff that came with hardware, such as the control software for the satellite system and the synchronization software for our cell phones and my MP3 player.

Because we run an open wireless network (more on that in a moment), and, moreover, often use our laptops on other wireless networks such as those in campgrounds, truck stops, or hotels, we have secured our laptops themselves rather than relying on external network security or firewalls. We use AVG Free Antivirus 7.5, which I find every bit as good as, if not superior to, the big fee-based products like Norton (Symantec) and McAfee, and Checkpoint's ZoneAlarm Free Version firewall. [Side note: Since Checkpoint bought out Zone Labs, nags about upgrading to the paid version have been creeping in to this product. Also, I understand that some of the other excellent free firewalls are easier to configure for novice users. We may switch firewall allegiance in the future, and I will try to update this post if that happens.]

Between these two products, and setting Windows Update to alert us of all critical security patches released by Microsoft, I have a great deal of confidence in the security of our setup. On the privacy front, we have taken some extra precautions with our browsers, which I will get to in a moment, and we also use Spybot Search and Destroy, and AdAware 2007 Free, both free products which will scan your computer for privacy-invading threats and offer to remove them.

Far and away the majority of our time on the computer is spent in a web browser, and for this we use Mozilla Firefox. In addition to being free, it's also open source, which means not only that security threats are detected and addressed quickly, but also that there is a huge community of developers working on extending the functionality, security, and appearance of the product. If you do only one thing to enhance your privacy and security on-line, it should be to move away from Microsoft Internet Explorer, perhaps the most dangerous browser ever made. Firefox is an excellent choice of replacement.

Once you've switched to Firefox, there are literally hundreds of extensions and themes that can be downloaded and added in. I use several myself, but one must-have is AdBlock Plus. Once you've installed this extension and subscribed to one of several "filter lists," advertisements on your web pages will virtually be a thing of the past. In addition to simply not having to look at those annoying graphics in otherwise useful web sites like Yahoo and CNN, your browser also will not spend any time downloading them, either, which will speed up your web experience, and, if you are watching your usage as we are, they won't use up your valuable bandwidth or download limits.

Speaking of download limits, our HughesNet satellite-based internet service (more on that later) has one. In order to allow users to be able to download important software updates and the like without exceeding the daily limit, HughesNet has set a "free" window, where usage does not count against your limit, from 3am to 6am Eastern (midnight to 3 Pacific) Time. To take advantage of this without having to stay up all night, I use a download manager called FlashGet (and its companion Firefox extension, FlashGot).

In addition to allowing the bandwidth-challenged to download at night, download managers can also speed up certain downloads by opening multiple streams and downloading multiple parts of the same file in parallel. Perhaps more importantly, depending on the download site, they can resume a download that has been interrupted (due to a system crash, or temporary loss of internet connectivity) without having to start the whole download over from the beginning.

I also use another download manager that is a Firefox extension called DownThemAll. In addition to the traditional benefits of download managers in general, this extension can look at all the links on a web page simultaneously, and offer to download any or all of them. This is handy when you visit, say, a photo gallery, and you'd like to download all the photos at once, or the index page of a collection of PDF documents that you'd like to download en masse.

To wrap up on Firefox extensions, I also use CookieCuller (cookie manager) and NoScript (script blocker) to further manage my privacy on line, ScribeFire occasionally to post to the blog, and FEBE to back up all my other extensions. The stand-alone tool MozBackup is useful for backing up other Firefox settings or transferring them to a different computer.

After web browsing, the next most common thing we do on our computers is email. In spite of my best efforts, I have not yet been able to wean Louise from Microsoft's Outlook Express, the chief benefit of which is that it is bundled with Windows. I myself am wary of the many security vulnerabilities that have turned up in OE over the years, and so I now use Mozilla Thunderbird for my email, another open source effort.

In addition to being a very competent mail and News client, Thunderbird includes a built-in RSS reader, and benefits from the same extensibility as Mozilla's other efforts. The MozBackup tool that I already mentioned will also back up, transfer, or restore your Thunderbird settings.

While I am on the subject of email, I will also tell you that we ditched all our fee-based email services some time ago, in favor of Google's free Gmail system. (We still have the POP accounts we are entitled to from, for example, HughesNet, but we don't use them.) Gmail allows us to receive, read, and send mail from a local client such as Thunderbird, while at the same time providing a powerful web-based interface as well as virtually unlimited message storage. We no longer have to worry about changing email addresses if we change service providers, and we can get our mail anywhere we can find web access, even without our computers.

Google does not exactly have the best track record when it comes to privacy, but nothing we do with our email gives me pause when I think about Google storing it all. Google also stores our blog, of course, having bought Blogger some time ago. One consequence of this is that our blog now shows up in the very top of Google searches for some pretty weird things (try "removing quickwire holes" or "disassemble MotoSat").

As I mentioned, we mostly access the internet via satellite. We have a MotoSat DataStorm F1 motorized, self-aligning dish (since superseded by the G74 model), which we bought third-hand and installed on Odyssey during construction. This system works in concert with the HughesNet satellite internet network, and we have a Hughes DW7000 satellite modem (since superseded by the HNS7000) that allows us to access the service. A MotoSat D2 controller (since superseded by the D3 -- do you detect a theme here?) communicates with the modem to align the dish automatically.

Both the modem and the controller are hard-wired Ethernet devices. To make productive use of the network throughout the coach and even outside in our lawn chairs or up on our deck, we use a NetGear WRG614 wireless ("WiFi") router to connect all the wired devices together, and propagate an 802.3B/G wireless network throughout the coach and extending perhaps a dozen yards or so in all directions. The router manages IP addresses for us and allows us to use any number of workstations on the single internet connection and address provided to us by HughesNet.

Aside from one time when some overzealous neighbor used so much of our bandwidth that we got restricted due to exceeding our limit (which prompted us to immediately lock the network down), our policy has been to keep our WiFi "hot spot" open, and allow our campground neighbors to use our service to check their email or surf the web. Amusingly, after the "tail gunner" on our Mexico caravan last year figured this out, we noticed that he always parked us in such a way that his rig would be within our signal footprint.

So far this open-access policy has stood us in good stead, netting us free booze, home-cooked meals, and, on the Mexico caravan, premium parking spots. I've used my share of other people's open networks over the years, so this also amounts to "giving back" to the open-access community.

In addition to the two computers, the printer, and the hardware associated with the satellite/WiFi networks, we also have a half-terabyte file server, also hard-wired to the router. (For the geeks, it's a Buffalo LinkStation, which is really a small embedded Linux box not much larger than the 500GB hard drive it contains.) This lets us back up our laptops conveniently, provides additional storage for videos or MP3's without eating up our hard drives, and lets us share files between our two computers easily and seamlessly.

As I alluded earlier, we use our computers to get all our news (cnn.com, and myriad sites from local papers and TV stations all over the country), pay all our bills (paytrust.com, for not only those bills that arrive on-line, but also those that insist on sending paper statements or getting paper checks), check on weather (wunderground.com), get help with the bus and its systems (busconversions.com and busnut online), look up restaurants, parks, campgrounds, dump stations, and myriad other resources (many links already listed in previous posts, with more to come). We even use the computer to make phone calls, using Skype, when cell phone service is unavailable.

A good part of my time in front of the screen is spent doing trip planning. For general route guidance, I use DeLorme's Street Atlas USA. The user interface, IMO, is total crap, but it is really the best tool out there in the consumer market for off-line use. After working out the overall route, I will use Google Earth to check up on aerial imagery of any roads that are a concern, destinations, waypoints, and stopovers. DeLorme's Topo USA comes into play for elevation profiles of routes, or terrain mapping for excursions off the paved roads.

For stopovers, in addition to the printed guides that Louise has already covered extensively in a previous post (and which have the advantage of being usable even while we are under way), I get collections of "overlay" files for Street Atlas USA that show locations of Elks lodges and Wal-Marts that allow overnight stays from on-line groups dedicated to those topics. Other on-line resources, such as Casino Camper, have locator maps and the coordinates can be transferred to Street Atlas or Google Earth. Web sites for all the major truck stop chains also provide location information as well as fuel pricing and availability of other services such as dump stations.

It is seldom necessary to do so -- once I know the route from the computer, it's easy to enter it on the GPS -- but I do also have the ability to take waypoints such as stopovers or major turns and transfer them from my computer to the Garmin 7200 GPS that lives in the cockpit and serves as our under-way route guidance. The GPS's internal database seems to always be out of date on Wal-Mart locations, so we often look those up on the Wal-Mart web site or in a printed directory and enter them by address.

Lastly, before I conclude, I'd like to mention the package I use for "office productivity" tools -- mostly spreadsheets and word-processing documents, but it also includes a relational database, presentation tool, drawing and graphics package, and even a scientific and mathematical equation package. That would be Open Office 2.4, another free, open source suite. The tools in this suite will open most of those pesky files made in Microsoft Office, such as Word documents, Excel workbooks, and PowerPoint presentations, and can even save to those formats, without having to send over $500 to Microsoft. The tools also write Adobe PDF files in native format. We happen to also have a Microsoft Office 2003 license that we inherited, which is handy since the American Red Cross uses that suite exclusively (a donation from Microsoft), and it's good to have the same tools that we use on a disaster response. But for my personal needs, I use OpenOffice.

I hope you have gotten something useful out of this quick (honestly!) tour of Odyssey's IT infrastructure.

13 comments:

  1. Lots of very useful information.
    Thanks!

    Bill

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  2. Thanks for the tour of your IT setup!

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  3. Wow...now that was a lot of information cogently, and succinctly presented. Thank you very much...you've given me a lot of "food" for thought. I'm still stuck in the Microsoft whirlpool, but now I have hope of escaping.

    Thanks again....Clarke

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  4. Sean, I agree about the comment about the user interface of DeLorme Street Atlas. However, DeLorme just released Street Atlas 2009. This new version has interface which is more driver friendly to a point that Street Atlas could easily be used - while driving - even on a very small display screen. Street Atlas 2009 now even has 3D perspective view. Perhaps if you tried it, you would even consider using it for GPS navigation, instead of transferring the pre-planned route to your Garmin GPS unit ;)

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  5. Thank you for your informative post.

    May I ask if you are satisfied with the quality of your satellite internet connection (speed, reliability)?

    I used to live out in the middle of nowhere and investigated getting a satellite internet connection, but was put off by the supplier who admitted that if I had access to dial up, I'd be better off with that since my connection would be more reliable.

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  6. Thankyou for an excellent write-up on your communications setup. We just had a Datastorm system installed last month and are very pleased with it so far.

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  7. Sean:

    Thanks very much for the "IT" information. I am a Firefox user but I wasn't aware of some of the add-ins you use.

    Can you make a comment on any potential difficulties powering up and down the Buffalo unit when you are traveling, will a network like yours tolerate power losses?

    Thanks

    Al.

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  8. Wow. Lots of comments for a post that, frankly, I expected few people to even read. Thanks for the feedback.

    @L.G.W. -- Nice site. I'm sure you are aware that several states, California chief among them, outlaw any computer screens where they are visible to the driver. Exceptions are made for dedicated navigation devices, but general-purpose computers, even if running only a nav app, are verboten. The fines are stiff -- nearly $400 in California last I checked. We'll stick with the Garmin. (Also, for anyone else reading along, California is one of two states that forbid suction-mounts on the windows -- same whopping fine.)

    @Raven -- methinks your supplier was merely uneducated on satellite technology. It is extremely reliable, more so than dial-up, and roughly 20 times faster on download and four times faster on upload. If you move to satellite from a dial-up environment, you will be extremely happy. OTOH, if you move to satellite from some other broadband technology such as cable or DSL, you will likely find the slight page-load delay (from satellite propagation delay) annoying until you get used to it, and the daily "fair access policy" limits (which, admittedly, some cable companies also impose) might seem overly restrictive to some.

    @Al -- when I first installed the Buffalo, I was extremely paranoid about having the disk spinning while driving, since it is not explicitly rated for that use. I've gotten over it: I now leave the disk powered up at all times, and, so far, no ill effects (I run disk checks periodically). Since power is supplied by our inverter, it virtually never goes down, but I do forget sometimes to properly shut it down when I need to power down for some reason. Like most computer equipment, the designers have accounted for the occasional power outage, and, again, so far no issues.

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  9. Thanks. Enjoy reading your blog.

    For what it's worth, you may also want to try -

    Evernote: It's a great little program to store notes and to do lists that you can customize with XML. Best of all it's free.

    Also - They have a great plugin for FireFox that works with EverNote. You simply highlight what you want on any webpage, click a button, and it stores that information in the program. Very quick and easy if you want to grab something from a webpage, for example, and retrieve it later.

    Here are a few other plugins that are useful with FireFox:

    FireShot - Quickly takes screenshots in a snap. I didn't think I would use it but it works great and comes in handy.

    Gmail Manager - If you have Gmail and use FireFox [both are great] then this is a worthy plugin.

    EmailThis - Another plugin for Gmail and FireFox which makes it easy to send a webpage through your Gmail account with one right-click.

    Google Send To Phone - Easily send text messages to any cell phone for free.

    One quick note in the hardware dept. You may want to keep your eye out for, or be amused, whichever you choose, is this neat little laptop that's been out for awhile. I would have never had given it any attention before until last week. I went to a computer meeting and two people showed up with one. After that I was sold.
    It's called an Asus EEE laptop. It is 1/3 to 1/4 the size of an average laptop and weighs close to nothing. You can get it in, yes, good 'ol dependable Linux, or Windows XP (not Vista :-)It comes with a full keyboard you can actually type on. It has all the ports functions of a regular laptop and it's fast. The only catch is the screen size fairly small but very readable. Wanna hear the best part?? It's only !$399! Better yet, in a month or two they are coming out with a new model with bigger screen for around the same price! Currently, the low model with Linux is only !$299!
    If you wanted to attend a meeting but didn't want to lug a full laptop. Were on the go, on a motorcycle or scooter, wanted to quickly check email at Starbucks, look up something on Google Maps, or just have an extra laptop, this little thing might fit the bill. They have a SD memory slot to increase storage and some come with a webcam. They are also very rugged (shockproof.) Works well with open source programs and FireFox.
    This little laptop obviously is not for everyone. The only store that I am aware of that carries them is BestBuy and they are online at NewEgg or Buy.com.

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  10. Oh I also forgot to mention...

    ZoneAlarm is was a good little personal firewall but over the last 2 years or so it's become less worthy.
    I eventually switched to Comodo Firewall Pro [free] and it has worked very well. It has more settings than you can shake a stick at if you want them but is also easy to install.
    As long as you don't run Windows 2000 NT (it's different version,) then for XP and above it's really a good alternative to ZoneAlarm.

    As a different note:
    I know you get what you pay for... but I was wondering what you think about having a manual dish vs. a trackable, combined in alt use with maybe an aircard or two? Is that even considerable as a less elaborate system or crawling on the roof or hill a laugh?
    >> Shows you how much I know. I don't have a clue about this stuff that's why I'm asking...

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  11. Sorry. One last one.

    FastStone Image Viewer is a fantastic program which I use all the time. It is an alternative to Google Picasa and IvanView.

    It also is free. One of the great features is batch processing, which, allows you to resize, sharpen, recolor, and rename photos in one pass to an entire folder of images.
    Perfect for digital photography and resizing images for blogs and such.

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  12. Thanks for the informative post. I dread things like this sometimes. It's rather confusing. What I do is just run my computer through a computer check up at one of those free websites like http://www.pcaholic.com.

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  13. Great post! I've been struggling with MS Vista and MS Works that came with my laptop. I don't want to tackle going to something other than Vista right now but I downloaded Open Office based on your post and am extremely happy with it.

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