Get more transformer outputs by using a grounding bus bar

Train transformers have one pair of screws for each output, which is generally enough for a simple layout, but once you have more than one accessory or building with lights in it, you’ll find it’s difficult to attach all of the wires to the transformer posts.

You can get more on the cheap by repurposing ground bus bars, intended for circuit breaker panels. Read more

Snickering at the Emachine

For several years, I administered a command and control system for the U.S. Air Force. I sat in a datacenter, surrounded by racks jam-packed full of servers, and they kept the building at 64 degrees year round. I quickly learned to keep a jacket handy. I did several things, but mostly patch management.

Our system consisted of a diverse collection of Dell 1U and 5U servers, HP blades, and a couple of Sun SPARC boxes. It was a professional-looking setup, and except for the times we were doing massive system upgrades, the system generally worked as well as it looked.

Then we got a neighbor.

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Why every sysadmin needs to know how to hack into Windows systems

Yesterday, Lifehacker posted an article called How to Break Into a Windows PC (And Prevent it from Happening to You). Some people weren’t happy that they posted a tutorial on how to hack into Windows systems.

Let me tell you why every sysadmin needs to know how to hack into Windows systems, given physical access. I can give you three scenarios that I’ve run into. Read more

Weekly roundup: 6 Oct 2010

I used to do a weekly roundup every so often, just doing short takes on stuff that interested me as I found it. I haven’t done that in years; I thought I’d give it a whirl again. I don’t know how often I’ll do it, but it was fun.

Ars Technica says Intel’s neutral stance on Atom in servers is a mistake. Absolutely. A dual-core Atom gives plenty of power for infrastructure servers like Active Directory DCs, print servers, and other similar roles. Atoms could even handle many web server tasks.

Xeons are appropriate for database servers and application servers, but throwing them at everything is severe overkill. A lot of server tasks are more disk-bound or network-bound than CPU-bound.

I worked in a datacenter facility for several years that was literally at half capacity, physically. But they didn’t have enough power or cooling capacity to add much more to it.

The only way anything can be added there is to take something away first. Right-sizing servers is the only way to fix that. If they would yank a Xeon, they’d be able to replace it with several Atom-based servers and get a net gain in functionality per square foot and BTU.

Virtualization, a la VMWare, is an option, but one isn’t necessarily a drop-in replacement for the other.

Or, of course, Intel can sit back and wait for ARM to come in and save the day. ARM provides even more functionality per watt. And even though ARM doesn’t run Windows, it does run Linux, and Samba has reached the point where it can stand in for an Active Directory domain controller.

Is there a market out there for a domain controller that fits in a package the size of a CD/DVD drive and consumes less than 20 watts? I’m sure there is. And if Intel doesn’t want to deliver it, ARM and its partners can.

There may be some resistance to ARM, since some decision makers are nervous of things they haven’t heard of, but it should be possible to overcome that. Maybe you haven’t heard of ARM, but guess what? Do you have a smartphone? It has an ARM CPU in it. That PDA you carried before you had a smartphone? It had an ARM CPU in it. It’s entirely possible that your consumer-grade network switch at home has one in it too. Not your router, though. That’s probably MIPS-based. (MIPS is another one of those scary RISC CPU architectures.)

Put a solid operating system on an ARM CPU, and it can run with anything. I have ARM devices that only reboot when the power goes out. If it weren’t for tornado and thunderstorm season causing the power to hiccup, those devices could run for years without a reboot or power-down.

And speaking of ARM, I have seen the future.

Pogoplug is an ARM-based appliance for sharing files. You plug it in, plug USB drives into it, and share files on your home network and the Internet with it. At least, that’s how it’s marketed. But you can hack it into a general purpose Linux box.

Inside, there’s a 1.2 GHz ARM CPU, 256 MB of RAM, and another 256MB of flash memory. Not a supercomputer, but that’s enough power to be useful. And it’s tiny, silent, and sips power. You can plug it in, stash it somewhere, and it’ll never remind you that it’s there.
I’ve actually considered picking up a Pogoplug or two (they go on sale for $45 occasionally, and the slightly less powerful Seagate Dockstar is available for about $30 when you can find them) to run this web site on. Considering how surprisingly well WordPress runs on a 450 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM (don’t ask me how I know), I think a Pogoplug could handle the workload.

What stops me? I can build an Atom-based PC for less than $150, depending on what I put in it, and run Turnkey Linux on it. Under a worst-case scenario, Turnkey Linux installs in 15 minutes, and it doesn’t take me any longer than that to drop a motherboard and hard drive into a case. So I can knock together an Atom-based webserver in 30 minutes, which is a lot less time than it would take me to get the LAMP stack running on an ARM system.

But if I had more time than money, I’d be all over this.

A device similar to this with an operating LAMP stack on it ready to go is probably too much to ask for. A ready-to-go image running the LAMP stack, similar in form to the DD-WRT or Tomato packages that people use to soup up their routers, might not be. I think it’s a good idea but it isn’t something I have time to head up.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Turnkey Linux before. I’ve played with it a little, and I’m dead serious that it installs in 15 minutes or less. Installing off a USB flash drive, it might very well install in five.

And it’ll run pretty happily on any PC manufactured this century. More recent is better, of course, but the base requirements are so modest they aren’t worth mentioning.

I’ve built dozens of Linux servers, but this is fantastic. Spend a few minutes downloading an image, copying it onto installation media, and chances are the installation process will take less time than all of that does.

It’s based on Ubuntu LTS, and comes in literally 38 flavors, with more to come after the next refresh is done.

They haven’t built their collection based on the current version of Ubuntu LTS yet because they’ve been distracted with building a backup service. But that’s OK. Ubuntu 8.04.3 still has a little life left in it, and you can either do a distribution upgrade after the initial install, or build a new appliance when the new version comes out and move the data over.

And if Ubuntu isn’t your thing, or you really want 10.04 and you want it now, or worse yet, Linux isn’t your thing, there’s always Bitnami (bitnami.org).

Linux appliances took a little while to get here, but they’re here now, and they work.

Intel\’s Atom mini-ITX board has some interesting possibilities

A story on The Register tipped me off to a small motherboard using Intel’s new Atom CPU. A UK data center is using the chip to power servers, and The Reg asks if it’s madness or genius.

More on that in a minute.It’s an interesting minimalist board. It has a single PCI slot, one DIMM slot, PATA and 2 SATA connectors for storage, and the usual complement of I/O slots. The CPU runs at 1.6 GHz. Newegg sells it for about 75 bucks.

One could use this board to build a minimalist PC, but it would also work well as a cheap upgrade for an old PC. It can bolt into a case designed for an ATX or micro-ATX board. It’s made by Intel, so its quality is likely to be comparable to any board it replaces. And the board consumes about 25 watts of power.

Paired up with some sort of solid-state storage, be it a compact flash card in an adapter or a proper SATA SSD like the OCZ Core, it would be a very quiet, low-power system. Performance-wise, it wouldn’t be a barn burner, but it has more than enough horsepower for word processing, e-mail, web browsing, and other productivity apps. At 1.6 GHz, the Atom doesn’t outrun a Pentium M or even a modern Celeron at comparable clock speed, but it should outrun a sub-2 GHz P4.

I think this thing would be awesome in many business environments. Tasks that would bog it down are the kinds of things you don’t want going on in the office anyway–stuff like 3D gaming, ripping and re-encoding DVDs, stuff like that. The power it would save would be tremendous, especially when paired with an LCD monitor and an SSD.

But I even think it has a place in the server room. For example, my first employer used desktop PCs for domain controllers. The logic was simple: DCs don’t work all that hard most of the day, and by their very nature they are redundant, so if a DC were to fail, it’s not in the same league as your mail server failing. You can grab another desktop PC, stand it up as a domain controller, then start asking questions.

In 1997, when a server cost $4,000 and a desktop PC cost $1,000, this was an obvious place for a college with budget problems to save some money.

I think Intel Atoms would make great domain controllers. They have enough CPU power to do the job, but they sip power, which is increasingly important in datacenters. The PCI slot would limit the type of gigabit NIC you could install, but it should still be OK.

They’d make fine web servers too. They might get bogged down on high traffic sites, but they would have little trouble serving up most corporate intranets, and let’s face it, most people’s web sites aren’t nearly as busy as they would like to think they are. You could always use more than one and load balance them. Besides, it’s typically the database servers behind the web servers that do the heavy lifting. Serving up static web pages isn’t all that difficult of a task, and a 1.6 GHz CPU ought to be up to it.

None of these uses are what Intel had in mind when they designed the Atom–I really think their ultimate goal is to end up in cell phones and PDAs, which was why they sold off their ARM-based Xscale CPU.

But if some enterprising company (or struggling behemoth *cough* Dell *cough*) wanted to build business PCs around these, it would be an easy sell. For that matter, they could stuff two of these boards into a 1U rackmount chassis and sell it as an inexpensive, power-saving alternative to blade servers.

Call me crazy, but having actually administered blade servers, I’d much rather have a bunch of 1U systems with two computers inside the case. Besides costing a lot less money up front, they would be more reliable and consume less power while actually saving space–an HP blade enclosure gives you 16 servers in 10 Us, while my crazy scheme would give you 20 servers in the same space.

Maybe instead of posting this idea where anyone can see it and run with it, I ought to buy a couple of motherboards, take them into my basement and start bending some metal myself. Hmm…

If you think you can do it so much better, then do it yourself

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the Classic Toy Trains forums. It seems like every time a new issue hits the street, someone has to find an article that has something wrong with it and point it out.It started a few months ago when my friend and mentor Joe Rampolla published an article about adding a capacitor to a toy train to make it stall less often and run more smoothly. The claims, as far as I can tell, were false (I had my longtime friend Steve DeLassus, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Washington University, check them out).

But practically every month since then, someone’s publicly taken issue with something in the magazine.

It’s not about a vendetta against a single author. One issue it was Joe. But last issue it was repair expert Ray Plummer’s advice on repairing a Lionel 2037. This issue it’s the legendary Peter Riddle’s article about getting Lionel’s TMCC and MTH’s DCS (two rival control systems) working together on the same layout.

In the case of each of these articles, the things the author said to do work. There might be an alternative way to do them. But that’s the nature of the hobby. Doesn’t it seem like Model Railroader publishes an article at least once a year about making trees, and not one of those articles has been a repeat since at least 1972 (and possibly 1942)? And if you were to read a complete run of Railroad Model Craftsman, you could probably find another 50 different ways to make trees.

Fifty or a hundred people having different ways to do it doesn’t make the guy who wrote the first article about making trees wrong.

In the case of Ray Plummer, what Plummer said matches what my local repair guy said and did when my Lionel 2037 had problems. When the pilot truck is adjusted within specifications, the 2037 and its many cousins run just fine. Plummer’s critic said the pilot truck is a poor design, and when you lengthen the truck to change its pivot point, it works more reliably.

That’s possible. I don’t know the theory behind pivot points. One of my best friends happens to be a mechanical engineer and maybe he could confirm that for me.

What I can say is that Plummer’s advice preserves the historical integrity and collector value of the locomotive. While modifying the pivot point probably wouldn’t make the locomotive worth any less to someone who just wants to run it, it would make it worth less to a collector.

I can also confirm that Plummer’s advice worked just fine on the locomotive that once belonged to my Dad. It’s almost as dependable as my Honda now.

As far as this month’s article to hit the avalanche of criticism, I don’t use any command control system on my layout and I have no interest in doing so. So I don’t have any experience that would back him up, and neither do either of my engineer buddies.

But I trust Peter Riddle. Riddle has written more than a dozen excellent books about trains. Wiring is a subject that confuses almost everyone, but I’m confident that a fifth grader could read one of Riddle’s books on wiring and understand it, then proceed to wire a Lionel layout effectively. Seriously.

I’ve heard the argument presented in these arguments that if an author is wrong about one thing, the reader loses confidence in everything he says. I don’t buy that argument. Riddle’s advice that the Lionel 1121 switch is a good match for early Marx locomotives isn’t entirely correct. From my own experience I know a Marx locomotive will bounce if it enters the switch from a particular direction.

So do I doubt what Riddle says on the other 95 pages of the same book? No. I also know from experience that the things he says on the other 95 pages work. And I know that even though that Marx locomotive bounces through the switch 33% of the time, it doesn’t derail every time it bounces. So maybe he’s never seen the problem I observed.

I’ll daresay there’s at least one mistake in every computer book I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean I stop reading computer books. I’ve been wrong once or twice before too. Just ask my boss.

Actually, come to think of it I’d really rather you just took my word on that one.

This criticism bothers me on another level too. Writing an article and getting it published isn’t an easy task. For most people it probably takes about 40 hours’ worth of work. CTT pays $70 per page, and a typical article is 3-4 pages long, so you do the math.

How many people want to spend a week of their lives writing an article only to have some self-styled expert rip it apart in five minutes? Is it worth putting your neck on the line for $300?

Most reasonable people would say no.

I’m sure this is largely an ego thing. Most people regard published authors as special people. So when someone knows something that a published author doesn’t, it must make for some kind of a high.

But the price is also high. How many great ideas languish in the mind of a would-be author, never to see the light of day, because the benefits just don’t outweigh that onslaught of criticism if it happens?

So the next time you catch a mistake in print, that’s great. It means you know enough to be an author. So think of something you know better than anyone else and go write an article and advance the hobby.

Of course, criticism is easier than craftsmanship. Zeuxis made that observation 2400 years ago, and it’s just as true today as it was then. Unfortunately.

Lionel bankruptcy

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

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