Apple’s MobileMe Service: No Linux For You

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I have a first generation Apple iPhone and on the 11th of July I downloaded the version 2.0 software via iTunes. I had been reading about the iPhone’s new 2.0 software functions and the MobileMe service and was eager to try them out.

We currently have a Microsoft Exchange 2003 infrastructure and I was curious to see how the MobileMe service stacked up against it. I should also mention that we are switching all our infrastructure out for Linux desktops and servers. We already dual boot all of our workstations between Ubuntu and Windows XP Pro. Most computers are now upgraded to VirtualBox on Ubuntu and so we can still use some applications that need Windows.

Although I am comparing MobileMe with Microsoft Exchange Server, I should also point out that we are evaluating other Exchange replacements which are Linux based. On our short list are: Scalix, Zimbra and Open Xchange. So far we seem to be leaning towards Scalix, however Zimbra is also strong in the running.

We are also well into replacing Microsoft Office with Open Office. So far there have not been any problems for us to use all our existing Microsoft Office documents with Open Office. As our preferred email client we have been using Evolution as the replacement for Microsoft Outlook.

So back to the iPhone and MobileMe evaluation.
Since we have a Exchange infrastructure available I first tried setting up a iPhone to connect to the Exchange Server. Even though the iPhone reports that it has connected to our Exchange Server we were unable to get email to or from the iPhone. After looking up Apple’s documentation they indicate a front end server implementation with a ISA server. That’s more infrastructure than we have, and I presume also more infrastructure than most small businesses with Windows Small Business Server Edition setups.
After several unsuccessful attempts I gave up. I did not want to spend a day on this since our Exchange Server’s days are numbered.

So I decided at this point to connect the iPhone to the MobileMe service and try their push technology. Unfortunately this was also unsuccessful and although no errors were reported in the MobileMe control panel applet no contact nor calendar data has been synced to the MobileMe cloud server.

I figured this may be due to the fact that the Microsoft Outlook user profile I used was still connected to the Exchange Server so I created a new Windows XP user profile and a new Microsoft Outlook user profile that did not connect to the Exchange Server. I imported only the contact and calendar data from a PST file backup and did the over ride sync in the advanced preferences in the MobileMe control panel applet.

Voila. I was able to get the contacts to sync to the MobileMe web application. However when I tried to open the calendar on the MobileMe service I got this error:

Calendar Error
MobileMe Calendar could not start because it was unable to load any calendars from the server. Try reloading Calendar. If this problem persists, contact MobileMe Support.

We get this error every time we try to open the calendar in the MobileMe service. I have reported this several times to Apple’s online support, however even though we get a message stating we will receive a reply within 48 hours we have yet to hear back from Apple.

Now all this testing was done from a computer booted into Windows XP Pro. It was time I got to the meat and tested these systems from a Ubuntu Linux system since this is the new infrastructure we are implementing.

The testing on the MobileMe service from Ubuntu turned out to be a very brief experiment. It seems Apple no likey Linux because if you go to the Me.com web site from Firefox 3 on Ubuntu you get this:

mobileme_on_ubuntu_error-sm

I have to say, this is very disappointing. I do not see any reason why MobileMe’s Me.com can work with Firefox 3 on Windows (and presumable Mac) and not on Firefox 3 on Ubuntu. I believe that a browser is a browser and this is contra to the ubiquitous computing holy grail that the technology sector has been preaching for years.

What also surprises me is that I did not hear this anywhere already. You would think that this glaring inoperability would be noted somewhere in the media. It seems that in the shock and awe that has accompanied the iPhone 3G rollout, nobody, including Apple, really tested these systems thoroughly. Clearly the MobileMe service is not ready for prime time. It is very very slow and when you do get it to work it makes your iPhone very laggy because anytime you open your contacts on the iPhone you will be waiting 5 to 15 seconds while it seems to be checking in with the contacts on the cloud Apple servers. This is really unacceptable.

Although not a bug, a feature that is glaringly missing from the MobileMe service is the ability for a organization to use their existing domain name. If Apple wants to attract businesses to this service they will need to be able to use their own branded email addresses instead of the username @ me.com MobileMe service email addresses. Google does provide this capability with their Google Apps platform.

Conclusion

I believe that MobileMe is a really great concept. I expect that the mad rush of iPhone sales has overwhelmed Apple’s expectations and caused for one a serious strain on the servers that run the MobileMe service. I also believe that as Apple treads more and more into Microsoft Windows territory they are learning that no two PC’s are configured the same and this is very different than what you will find in Mac land where the hardware is more similar from machine to machine.

If Apple gets the MobileMe service to run smoother and increase the performance while they fix the initial bugs in the synchronization, they will be providing a terrific infrastructure service at a reasonable price point for small to mid-sized businesses.

Ten Years West-Age Web Services

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Ten Years West-Age Web Services

A few friends have asked me to elaborate on this a bit because they know West-Age Web Services has been around about 17 years. I have decided I should write a bit of history about this and will publish it soon.

Project File: Grants Pass Properties

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West-Age Web Services announced today the launch of Grants Pass Properties, grantspass-properties.com, a property listing web site targeted at independent real estate agents, real estate brokers and small to mid-sized property management companies.

The Grants Pass Properties web site presents an attractive look and user friendly navigation allowing the web sites visitors to easily find properties that meet their search criteria. Currently there are four categories of property listings:

  • Houses
  • Apartments
  • Commercial Property
  • Retail Property

Site visitors may also post “Wanted” requests for a property with the criteria and specifications that they are seeking. These requests are visible to registered agents in order for them to assist the buyer in locating the desired property.

There are two main parts to the Grants Pass Properties web site. The front end publicly facing component that presents the listings and acts as the interface for site visitors. Then there is the back end where registered agents and registered customers interact with each other. This is where the real power lies in the product as it provides a common communications mechanism between agents and buyers. Agents may optionally enable SMS alerts in their user control panel that will allow the system to automatically notify them of new listings or inquiries to one of their existing listings.

grants-pass-properties-listings

There are several additional modules under development that will be added to the Grants Pass Properties project. One of which is a rental management module that will allow property managers and independent property owners with summer/winter rental properties to manage their properties. This module presents the rental property in a publicized listing with a calendar indicating availability. The rental owner or agent will be able to manage their customers and property availability and pricing via their personal control panel.
Estimated launch for the rental management module is summer 2008.

To celebrate the web site launch Grants Pass Properties will be giving away 30 day free listings to real estate agents, real estate brokers, property managers and home owners wishing to advertise for sale by owner listings. All listings can include up to 12 images each.

For further questions or inquiries please visit the contact us page on the Grants Pass Properties web site located at grantspass-properties.com

Going Ubuntu Linux

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I have been a loyal Microsoft advocate for a long time, everyone who knows me knows this.  I also was a early adopter of the Windows Vista beta program and did some extensive testing on our network with some positive results.  However, the final conclusion I arrived at was that there is really no compelling business reason to migrate to Windows Vista.  In fact I am of the opinion that Vista is really only attractive to gamers and people who are happy to work with immature products.  The only real benefit, if you can call it a benefit, is the attractive Aero Glass user interface.

As a network administrator Vista has introduced several obstacles that make installing and maintaining software an unpleasant experience.  This saddens me as I was hopeful that the new implementation of user access controls would improve that situation, not impede it further.

Additionally, I was very disappointed with Windows Vista pricing.  I am impressed that Microsoft can sell Vista at the current price points.

For some time I have been interested in trying out Linux.  Previously Linux had in my opinion only been appropriate in the server area, and more specifically in the web server area.  However I had heard some good things about the Ubuntu distribution of Linux and decided I would try it.  For my testing I decided to use the same Dell Dimension 8400 system that I have been using for my Windows Vista tests.

Ubuntu Linux is quite an impressive suite.  it includes the operating system and tons of software, including Open Office.  Open Office is in nearly every respect a Microsoft Office replacement.  If you have a typical Microsoft Windows and Office installation you probably have about $600 per seat invested.  If you compare this to the completely free Ubuntu system you can save a lot of money.  This can be particularly interesting to business users.

One of my early impressions with Ubuntu is the stability.  I am also impressed with the performance.  Ubuntu seems more efficient than Windows Vista, and perhaps even Windows XP Professional.
Ubuntu by default installed a virtual desktop system which is fascinating and should be very useful for power users who like to have a lot of applications running at the same time.  Switching between the desktops is as simple as clicking an icon at the botton of the screen.

I will be doing a more in depth report complete with screen shots in the coming weeks so if you have wondered what Linux, and particularly Ubuntu looks like check back again.

Implementing SPAM Block Lists In Microsoft Exchange 2003

Many companies spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each year attempting to reduce or eliminate SPAM junk email from their inboxes and servers. If you are using a POP3 email provider you are more or less at their mercy of how Spam is handled.  Often this is a digital yes or no option meaning that you can either enable their Spam filtering or not. In most cases you do not have a choice of what filtering methods or systems are used.

Another issue one can encounter along the road to the elimination of Spam is with the many software applications on the market. You typically have options, too many in some cases for most computer users to understand, in the configuration of how effective the Spam filtering will be. Most default settings will help you reduce the Spam in your inbox, but turning the filtering up too much often results in what is called false positive errors meaning that some legitimate email gets filtered as Spam.

There is a dirty little secret in the Spam software business that you should be aware of. A lot of the companies selling you software to filter Spam rely on Spam lists that are available for free to the general public.

If you are a very small organization operating a couple computer workstations in a peer-to-peer environment there is not much you can do and you will most likely have to implement some locally installed software if you need to reduce the Spam you receive. However, if you are a company operating a client-server based network you should consider running your own email server, such as Microsoft Exchange. Running a email server like Microsoft Exchange in your network will give you more flexibility in implementing a Spam defense. Additionally, by implementing a centrally based server solution you will save time and money by not having to install and maintain separate solutions on all your networked computers.

Another benefit of running a server based filtering solution is you will not loose performance at the user workstation level.

This article assumes you are operating a Microsoft based network in a client server environment. I will be talking about Windows Small Business Server 2003, however this implementation also works for all the other Microsoft Windows Server 2003 platforms with Exchange Server 2003 and higher. UNIX and LINUX networks can also implement this Anti-Spam strategy, however we will focus on Microsoft networks because that’s what we do.

Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 and higher have the capability built-in to implement Real Time Block Lists, or RBL’s. There are other acronyms you should be aware of since the jargon is not standardized and some companies intermix them. MAPS for Mail Abuse Prevention System and SBL and XBL are others based on each of their block list generation processes.

We are going to use SPAMHAUS in this article because we like that they basically told the US court in their defense case with e360 Insight LLC to get screwed. e360 Insight LLC is a Spam/bulk mail company.

Before you begin you need to have a functioning Microsoft Exchange Server connected to the Internet. You must be able to send and receive email. You should then test that your domain is not listed in any of the Spam databases. You can test this via any of the online tools such as DNSstuff.com. You should also verify that you are not operating a open relay in your SMTP implementation. Open relays can lead to your server being used by Spammers to distribute bulk email and Spam. You should also consider tar pitting your SMTP server to make it less interesting to Spammers, see our article on tar pitting here.

Once you have verified that you are not operating a open relay and that you are not listed in any Spam databases you can begin the configuration process.

First you will need to select one of the Spam database such as SPAMHAUS, SPAMCop. You will need to set their DNS suffix information (for SPAMHAUS it is sbl-xbl.spamhaus.org for both their combined SBL and XBL zones) you enter this information in your Exchange Server’s global message delivery properties dialog. You can leave the return status code to the default settings.

After completing this configuration you will need to enable the connection filtering for each of your SMTP virtual servers. You do this under your servers virtual SMTP server general tab by clicking advanced then selecting the IP for the virtual SMTP server and then edit. Check the connection filtering checkbox and OK out of all the dialogs.

So how effective is this? I had typically received close to 600 Spam email messages per day. Now I receive under 200. Your results will vary. Keep in mind that if you, or users on your network, are online shopping and/or signing up for lots of newsletter subscriptions these messages will probably not get filtered since the US government protects the rights of bulk mailers and Spammers to send you as much junk mail as they want if you authorized them, or one of their affiliates, to do so.

The bottom line is this: Implementing one, or several, of the online Spam databases is a pretty simple configuration that you can make to your existing infrastructure for free. If you are not comfortable making system changes to your servers most IT consultants can do it for you for a one time fee. Once setup these services are maintained at the remote database level by the service and therefore are maintenance free.

Now go set it up and enjoy a inbox with less Spam.

Quick and illustrative communication with your Tablet PC

I don’t come across many Tablet PC users in the field as most users of this platform tend to be vertical markets like FedEx, UPS or doctors, but when I do meet one you can usually tell they are very enthusiastic about the device.  I have been using a HP TR-3000 ruggedized TabletPC for over a year now and it has been very useful particularly in meetings for taking notes.  I originally based my decision to purchase a ruggedized device on the fact that I am often in the field at customer sites.  On my particular device I sacrificed screen real estate for toughness.  To be honest, if I had to make the same decision now knowing what I know after living with my device I would now choose the larger screen.  My TR-3000 does 800×600 and I sure would like to have 1024×768 a lot of times to save scrolling.  On the other hand my device survived a serious car accident.

Most people don’t consider Tablet PC’s when they look for a portable computing device and tend to default their purchase decision to notebook or laptop computers.  You would be surprised how often people get that “gee whiz” look in their eyes when I let them try my TabletPC.  It was like that for me too.  As soon as you start using a TabletPC it doesn’t take long for you to say to yourself “why didn’t I get one of these sooner?”

At any rate, this article is targeting a smaller audience.  But even though the content is mostly about the Tablet PC there is a very good tip for using MSN Messenger version 7.5 (the current version as of this writing) to send messages to your employees or co-workers cell phones via text messages (SMS) even if they are not registered MSN Messenger users.  Check it out, I think you will find this information useful.

If you are in the market for a new notebook or laptop computer you owe it to yourself to look into the Tablet PC, you may be very surprised about what it can do for you.  Find a local dealer where you can get some hands on time with one and see if you don’t have a gee whiz experience too.

Click here to go to the MS article.

Installing SharePoint Portal Server 2003 on a Server with Windows SharePoint Services

Abstract: Learn how to install Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 on a server that already has Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 2.0 installed, and incorporate existing SharePoint sites into the new configuration.

Introduction

Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 builds on the technology of Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 2.0. Users who have installed Windows SharePoint Services will often want to take full advantage of that technology by installing SharePoint Portal Server 2003. SharePoint Portal Server 2003 includes Windows SharePoint Services 2.0. However, to preserve information from your existing deployment, you must perform several additional steps when installing SharePoint Portal Server 2003 on a server that already has Windows SharePoint Services installed.

Click here to download the full MS article in Microsoft Word DOC format.

Dell PERC RAID Multiple Drive Failure

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This article is to help you get your Dell PowerEdge servers equipped with the PERC RAID controller back online if you experience a multiple drive failure.  A multiple drive failure will be indicated by flashing amber lights on more than one physical hard drive in your RAID array.

Background:  Some Dell servers equipped with PERC RAID controllers can experience multiple drive failures.  These RAID arrays can usually tolerate a single drive failure without any impact on the servers availability in your network environment.  However, if more than one drive fails the server will not be available on the network.  In this case you will usually see amber flashing status LEDs on the failed hard drives.

In most cases multiple hard drives do not fail at the same time so it is very likely that one of the drives is still good but may have gone offline when another drive failed.  In some cases this can be due to timing issues between the PERC RAID controller and the drives firmware.  As of this writing Dell has released a firmware update to bring hard drives in many PowerEdge systems up to level JT00.  If you have drives in your server with a lower revision level firmware you should consider this a urgent update.

Getting Back Online
These step require that you enter the PERC RAID controllers BIOS and making some changes.  We recommend that you leave this to experienced server administrators as you can cause permanent drive damage, or data loss.  As usual you should be backing up your server as by the time you have to perform these steps it is too late to do so.

Restart The Server
Power down the server, or perform a soft restart if possible.

Enter The PERC RAID Controller Setup
You will see the <CTL-M> message on screen.  This key combination will get you into the PERC controllers setup mode.

Force Drive Online
Choose a failed drive to force online.  This is a coin toss as you cannot be sure which drive (if not both) is actually failed.  Select objects and then physical drives from the menus.

IMPORTANT: Make a note of which physical drives are marked bad before making any changes.  Drives will be numbered starting with 0 so your first drive is not 1.  Example: If you have a 5 drive array they will be numbered 0-4.
Select one of the failed drives and select force online.
ESC out of all menus and quit the RAID controller setup by selecting yes.  Soft reboot the server with CTL-ALT-DEL.

Allow the server to boot completely.  If you see the operating systems startup logo you are probably ok.  If you see a message indicating corrupt data which does not allow the server to start you will have to go back into the RAID controller’s BIOS setup and force the drive you just forced online into a forced offline state.  Next you will have to repeat the above procedure forcing the other failed drive online and soft restarting your server.

Normally by following this procedure you will be able to get your server back online with only one drive indicating a failure mode.  You will be able to replace the failed drive with a drive of equal or higher capacity, but not lower capacity.  Dell, or your server manufacturer can ship you the replacement drive via overnight delivery.  you do not want to operate your server in a failed drive state for a prolonged period as it will not tolerate a second drive failure.

There have also been cases where the problem was not solved following these steps due to a defective backplane or controller card.  Usually replacing these components resolved the issue without data loss, however if the rebuild process is not completed successfully you can experience file corruption.  In these instances you will have to perform a complete system restore, or worse a complete re-installation of your server.

When you purchase a new server from any manufacturer you should be opting for the 3 year minimum full warranty.  Dell for example has been able to deliver us with replacement components the same day because the client had purchased the full warranty when the server was ordered.  In fact, on one occasion we had the parts delivered in two hours because Dell works with UPS logistics and they have caches of replacement parts.  In this instance the customer happened to be in close proximity to the UPS resource location.

We see most servers as having a three year life expectancy due to the technology advancement and the fact that many small and mid-sized businesses are not operating their servers in clean climate controlled environments.  Additionally most companies seem to be able to amortize their server investments sooner than 10 years ago.  If you intend to amortize your server assets over five years or more you should definitely opt for the maximum warranty during your purchase phase.

I hope this article helped you get your server back online and getting the angry users off your back!  If you have any questions about this article contact me.

How to configure connection filtering to use Realtime Block Lists (RBLs)

How to configure connection filtering to use Realtime Block Lists (RBLs) and how to configure recipient filtering in Exchange 2003

SUMMARY
You can use the connection filtering and recipient filtering features in Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 to help reduce unwanted mass e-mail or unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) in your organization.

Connection filtering is used to configure Exchange Server to contact a Realtime Block List (RBL) provider to determine whether the computer that an e-mail message is sent from appears in a list of "blacklisted" computers. You can also configure exceptions to these connection filters.

Additionally, you can configure recipient filters to prevent e-mail from being delivered to certain members of your organization or to recipients who are not members of your organization.

This article describes how to configure these filters and how to assign them to a particular SMTP virtual server. Additionally, this article contains a sample mail-flow process to describe where each filter is applied during the mail flow conversation.

To read the full MS KB article click here.

SMTP tar pit feature for Microsoft Windows Server 2003

This article explains tar pitting your Windows 2003 Server.

Important This article contains information about how to modify the registry.

Click here for the full MS KB article (opens a new window).

What is SMTP tar pitting?

Tar pitting is the practice of deliberately inserting a delay into certain SMTP communications that are associated with spam or with other unwanted traffic. To be effective, these kinds of communications typically rely on generating a high volume of traffic. By slowing an SMTP conversation, you can dramatically reduce the rate at which automated spam can be sent or at which a dictionary attack can be conducted. Legitimate traffic may also be slowed by tar pitting.