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Is a Thinkpad Still Like a Rolls-Royce

For a long time the Thinkpad has been widely regarded as the “Rolls-Royce of laptops”. Since 2003 one could argue that Rolls-Royce is no longer the Rolls-Royce of cars [1]. The way that IBM sold the Think business unit to Lenovo and the way that Lenovo is producing both Thinkpads and cheaper Ideapads is somewhat similar to the way the Rolls-Royce trademark and car company were separately sold to companies that are known for making cheaper cars.

Sam Varghese has written about his experience with Thinkpads and how he thinks it’s no longer the Rolls-Royce of laptops [2]. Sam makes some reasonable points to support this claim (one of which only applies to touchpad users – not people like me who prefer the Trackpoint), but I think that the real issue is whether it’s desirable to have a laptop that could be compared to a Rolls-Royce nowadays.

Support

The Rolls-Royce car company is known for great reliability and support as well as features that other cars lack (mostly luxury features). The Thinkpad marque (both before and after it was sold to Lenovo) was also known for great support. You could take a Thinkpad to any service center anywhere in the world and if the serial number indicated that it was within the warranty period it would be repaired without any need for paperwork. The Thinkpad service centers never had any issue with repairing a Thinkpad that lacked a hard drive just as long as the problem could be demonstrated. It was also possible to purchase an extended support contract at any time which covered all repairs including motherboard replacement. I know that not everyone had as good an experience as I had with Thinkpad support, but I’ve been using them since 1998 without problems – which is more than I can say for most hardware.

Do we really need great reliability from laptops nowadays? When I first got a laptop hardly anyone I knew owned one. Nowadays laptops are common. Having a copy of important documents on a USB stick is often a good substitute for a reliable laptop, when you are in an environment where most people own laptops it’s usually not difficult to find someone who will let you use theirs for a while. I think that there is a place for a laptop with RAID-1 and ECC RAM, it’s a little known fact that Thinkpads have a long history of supporting the replacement of a CD/DVD drive with a second hard drive (I don’t know if this is still supported) but AFAIK they have never supported ECC RAM.

My first Thinkpad cost $3,800. In modern money that would be something like $7,000 or more. For that price you really want something that’s well supported to protect the valuable asset. Sam complains about his new Thinkpad costing more than $1000 and needing to be replaced after 2.5 years. Mobile phones start at about $600 for the more desirable models (IE anything that runs Pokemon Go) and the new Google Pixel phones range from $1079 to $1,419. Phones aren’t really expected to be used for more than 2.5 years. Phones are usually impractical to service in any way so for most of the people who read my blog (who tend to buy the more expensive hardware) they are pretty much a disposable item costing $600+. I previously wrote about a failed Nexus 5 and the financial calculations for self-insuring an expensive phone [3]. I think there’s no way that a company can provide extended support/warranty while making a profit and offering a deal that’s good value to customers who can afford to self-insure. The same applies for the $499 Lenovo Ideapad 310 and other cheaper Lenovo products. Thinkpads (the higher end of the Lenovo laptop range) are slightly more expensive than the most expensive phones but they also offer more potential for the user to service them.

Features

My first Thinkpad was quite underpowered when compared to desktop PCs, it had 32M of RAM and could only be expanded to 96M at a time when desktop PCs could be expanded to 128M easily and 256M with some expense. It had a 800*600 display when my desktop display was 1280*1024 (37% of the pixels). Nowadays laptops usually start at about 8G of RAM (with a small minority that have 4G) and laptop displays start at about 1366*768 resolution (51% of the pixels in a FullHD display). That compares well to desktop systems and also is capable of running most things well. My current Thinkpad is a T420 with 8G of RAM and a 1600*900 display (69% of FullHD), it would be nice to have higher resolution but this works well and it was going cheap when I needed a new laptop.

Modern Thinkpads don’t have some of the significant features that older ones had. The legendary Butterfly Keyboard is long gone, killed by the wide displays that economies of scale and 16:9 movies have forced upon us. It’s been a long time since Thinkpads had some of the highest resolution displays and since anyone really cared about it (you only need pixels to be small enough that you can’t see them).

For me one of the noteworthy features of the Thinkpads has been the great keyboard. Mechanical keys that feel like a desktop keyboard. It seems that most Thinkpads are getting the rubbery keyboard design made popular by Apple. I guess this is due to engineering factors in designing thin laptops and the fact that most users don’t care.

Matthew Garrett has blogged about the issue of Thinkpad storage configured as “RAID mode” without any option to disable it [4]. This is an annoyance (which incidentally has been worked around) and there are probably other annoyances like it. Designing hardware and an OS are both complex tasks. The interaction between Windows and the hardware is difficult to get right from both sides and the people who design the hardware often don’t think much about Linux support. It has always been this way, the early Thinkpads had no Linux support for special IBM features (like fan control) and support for ISA-PnP was patchy. It is disappointing that Lenovo doesn’t put a little extra effort into making sure that Linux works well on their hardware and this might be a reason for considering another brand.

Service Life

I bought my curent Thinkpad T420 in October 2013 [5] It’s more than 3 years old and has no problems even though I bought it refurbished with a reduced warranty. This is probably the longest I’ve had a Thinkpad working well, which seems to be a data point against the case that modern Thinkpads aren’t as good.

I bought a T61 in February 2010 [6], it started working again (after mysteriously not working for a month in late 2013) and apart from the battery lasting 5 minutes and a CPU cooling problem it still works well. If that Thinkpad had cost $3,800 then I would have got it repaired, but as it cost $796 (plus the cost of a RAM upgrade) and a better one was available for $300 it wasn’t worth repairing.

In the period 1998 to 2010 I bought a 385XD, a 600E, a T21, a T43, and a T61 [6]. During that time I upgraded laptops 4 times in 12 years (I don’t have good records of when I bought each one). So my average Thinkpad has lasted 3 years. The first 2 were replaced to get better performance, the 3rd was replaced when an employer assigned me a Thinkpad (and sold it to be when I left), and 4 and 5 were replaced due to hardware problems that could not be fixed economically given the low cost of replacement.

Conclusion

Thinkpads possibly don’t have the benefits over other brands that they used to have. But in terms of providing value for the users it seems that they are much better than they used to be. Until I wrote this post I didn’t realise that I’ve broken a personal record for owning a laptop. It just keeps working and I hadn’t even bothered looking into the issue. For some devices I track how long I’ve owned them while thinking “can I justify replacing it yet”, but the T420 just does everything I want. The battery still lasts 2+ hours which is a new record too, with every other Thinkpad I’ve owned the battery life has dropped to well under an hour within a year of purchase.

If I replaced this Thinkpad T420 now it will have cost me less than $100 per year (or $140 per year including the new SSD I installed this year), that’s about 3 times better than any previous laptop! I wouldn’t feel bad about replacing it as I’ve definitely got great value for money from it. But I won’t replace it as it’s doing everything I want.

I’ve just realised that by every measure (price, reliability, and ability to run all software I want to run) I’ve got the best Thinkpad I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s not like a Rolls-Royce, but I’d much rather drive a 2016 Tesla than a 1980 Rolls-Royce anyway.

Another Broken Nexus 5

In late 2013 I bought a Nexus 5 for my wife [1]. It’s a good phone and I generally have no complaints about the way it works. In the middle of 2016 I had to make a warranty claim when the original Nexus 5 stopped working [2]. Google’s warranty support was ok, the call-back was good but unfortunately there was some confusion which delayed replacement.

Once the confusion about the IMEI was resolved the warranty replacement method was to bill my credit card for a replacement phone and reverse the charge if/when they got the original phone back and found it to have a defect covered by warranty. This policy meant that I got a new phone sooner as they didn’t need to get the old phone first. This is a huge benefit for defects that don’t make the phone unusable as you will never be without a phone. Also if the user determines that the breakage was their fault they can just refrain from sending in the old phone.

Today my wife’s latest Nexus 5 developed a problem. It turned itself off and went into a reboot loop when connected to the charger. Also one of the clips on the rear case had popped out and other clips popped out when I pushed it back in. It appears (without opening the phone) that the battery may have grown larger (which is a common symptom of battery related problems). The phone is slightly less than 3 years old, so if I had got the extended warranty then I would have got a replacement.

Now I’m about to buy a Nexus 6P (because the Pixel is ridiculously expensive) which is $700 including postage. Kogan offers me a 3 year warranty for an extra $108. Obviously in retrospect spending an extra $100 would have been a benefit for the Nexus 5. But the first question is whether new phone going to have a probability greater than 1/7 of failing due to something other than user error in years 2 and 3? For an extended warranty to provide any benefit the phone has to have a problem that doesn’t occur in the first year (or a problem in a replacement phone after the first phone was replaced). The phone also has to not be lost, stolen, or dropped in a pool by it’s owner. While my wife and I have a good record of not losing or breaking phones the probability of it happening isn’t zero.

The Nexus 5 that just died can be replaced for 2/3 of the original price. The value of the old Nexus 5 to me is less than 2/3 of the original price as buying a newer better phone is the option I want. The value of an old phone to me decreases faster than the replacement cost because I don’t want to buy an old phone.

For an extended warranty to be a good deal for me I think it would have to cost significantly less than 1/10 of the purchase price due to the low probability of failure in that time period and the decreasing value of a replacement outdated phone. So even though my last choice to skip an extended warranty ended up not paying out I expect that overall I will be financially ahead if I keep self-insuring, and I’m sure that I have already saved money by self-insuring all my previous devices.

Improving Memory

I’ve just attended a lecture about improving memory, mostly about mnemonic techniques. I’m not against learning techniques to improve memory and I think it’s good to teach kids a variety of things many of which won’t be needed when they are younger as you never know which kids will need various skills. But I disagree with the assertion that we are losing valuable skills due to “digital amnesia”.

Nowadays we have programs to check spelling so we can avoid the effort of remembering to spell difficult words like mnemonic, calendar apps on our phones that link to addresses and phone numbers, and the ability to Google the world’s knowledge from the bathroom. So the question is, what do we need to remember?

For remembering phone numbers it seems that all we need is to remember numbers that we might call in the event of a mobile phone being lost or running out of battery charge. That would be a close friend or relative and maybe a taxi company (and 13CABS isn’t difficult to remember).

Remembering addresses (street numbers etc) doesn’t seem very useful in any situation. Remembering the way to get to a place is useful and it seems to me that the way the navigation programs operate works against this. To remember a route you would want to travel the same way on multiple occasions and use a relatively simple route. The way that Google maps tends to give the more confusing routes (IE routes varying by the day and routes which take all shortcuts) works against this.

I think that spending time improving memory skills is useful, but it will either take time away from learning other skills that are more useful to most people nowadays or take time away from leisure activities. If improving memory skills is fun for you then it’s probably better than most hobbies (it’s cheap and provides some minor benefits in life).

When I was in primary school it was considered important to make kids memorise their “times tables”. I’m sure that memorising the multiplication of all numbers less than 13 is useful to some people, but I never felt a need to do it. When I was young I could multiply any pair of 2 digit numbers as quickly as most kids could remember the result. The big difference was that most kids needed a calculator to multiply any number by 13 which is a significant disadvantage.

What We Must Memorise

Nowadays the biggest memory issue is with passwords (the Correct Horse Battery Staple XKCD comic is worth reading [1]). Teaching mnemonic techniques for the purpose of memorising passwords would probably be a good idea – and would probably get more interest from the audience.

One interesting corner-case of passwords is ATM PIN numbers. The Wikipedia page about PIN numbers states that 4-12 digits can be used for PINs [2]. The 4 digit PIN was initially chosen because John Adrian Shepherd-Barron (who is credited with inventing the ATM) was convinced by his wife that 6 digits would be too difficult to memorise. The fact that hardly any banks outside Switzerland use more than 4 digits suggests that Mrs Shepherd-Barron had a point. The fact that this was decided in the 60’s proves that it’s not “digital amnesia”.

We also have to memorise how to use various supposedly user-friendly programs. If you observe an iPhone or Mac being used by someone who hasn’t used one before it becomes obvious that they really aren’t so user friendly and users need to memorise many operations. This is not a criticism of Apple, some tasks are inherently complex and require some complexity of the user interface. The limitations of the basic UI facilities become more obvious when there are operations like palm-swiping the screen for a screen-shot and a double-tap plus drag for a 1 finger zoom on Android.

What else do we need to memorise?

10 Years of Glasses

10 years ago I first blogged about getting glasses [1]. I’ve just ordered my 4th pair of glasses. When you buy new glasses the first step is to scan your old glasses to use that as a base point for assessing your eyes, instead of going in cold and trying lots of different lenses they can just try small variations on your current glasses. Any good optometrist will give you a print-out of the specs of your old glasses and your new prescription after you buy glasses, they may be hesitant to do so if you don’t buy because some people get a prescription at an optometrist and then buy cheap glasses online. Here are the specs of my new glasses, the ones I’m wearing now that are about 4 years old, and the ones before that which are probably about 8 years old:

New 4 Years Old Really Old
R-SPH 0.00 0.00 -0.25
R-CYL -1.50 -1.50 -1.50
R-AXS 180 179 180
L-SPH 0.00 -0.25 -0.25
L-CYL -1.00 -1.00 -1.00
L-AXS 5 10 179

The Specsavers website has a good description of what this means [2]. In summary SPH is whether you are log-sighted (positive) or short-sighted (negative). CYL is for astigmatism which is where the focal lengths for horizontal and vertical aren’t equal. AXS is the angle for astigmatism. There are other fields which you can read about on the Specsavers page, but they aren’t relevant for me.

The first thing I learned when I looked at these numbers is that until recently I was apparently slightly short-sighted. In a way this isn’t a great surprise given that I spend so much time doing computer work and very little time focusing on things further away. What is a surprise is that I don’t recall optometrists mentioning it to me. Apparently it’s common to become more long-sighted as you get older so being slightly short-sighted when you are young is probably a good thing.

Astigmatism is the reason why I wear glasses (the Wikipedia page has a very good explanation of this [3]). For the configuration of my web browser and GUI (which I believe to be default in terms of fonts for Debian/Unstable running KDE and Google-Chrome on a Thinkpad T420 with 1600×900 screen) I can read my blog posts very clearly while wearing glasses. Without glasses I can read it with my left eye but it is fuzzy and with my right eye reading it is like reading the last line of an eye test, something I can do if I concentrate a lot for test purposes but would never do by choice. If I turn my glasses 90 degrees (so that they make my vision worse not better) then my ability to read the text with my left eye is worse than my right eye without glasses, this is as expected as the 1.00 level of astigmatism in my left eye is doubled when I use the lens in my glasses as 90 degrees to it’s intended angle.

The AXS numbers are for the angle of astigmatism. I don’t know why some of them are listed as 180 degrees or why that would be different from 0 degrees (if I turn my glasses so that one lens is rotated 180 degrees it works in exactly the same way). The numbers from 179 degrees to 5 degrees may be just a measurement error.

Hostile Web Sites

I was asked whether it would be safe to open a link in a spam message with wget. So here are some thoughts about wget security and web browser security in general.

Wget Overview

Some spam messages are designed to attack the recipient’s computer. They can exploit bugs in the MUA, applications that may be launched to process attachments (EG MS Office), or a web browser. Wget is a very simple command-line program to download web pages, it doesn’t attempt to interpret or display them.

As with any network facing software there is a possibility of exploitable bugs in wget. It is theoretically possible for an attacker to have a web server that detects the client and has attacks for multiple HTTP clients including wget.

In practice wget is a very simple program and simplicity makes security easier. A large portion of security flaws in web browsers are related to plugins such as flash, rendering the page for display on a GUI system, and javascript – features that wget lacks.

The Profit Motive

An attacker that aims to compromise online banking accounts probably isn’t going to bother developing or buying an exploit against wget. The number of potential victims is extremely low and the potential revenue benefit from improving attacks against other web browsers is going to be a lot larger than developing an attack on the small number of people who use wget. In fact the potential revenue increase of targeting the most common Linux web browsers (Iceweasel and Chromium) might still be lower than that of targeting Mac users.

However if the attacker doesn’t have a profit motive then this may not apply. There are people and organisations who have deliberately attacked sysadmins to gain access to servers (here is an article by Bruce Schneier about the attack on Hacking Team [1]). It is plausible that someone who is targeting a sysadmin could discover that they use wget and then launch a targeted attack against them. But such an attack won’t look like regular spam. For more information about targeted attacks Brian Krebs’ article about CEO scams is worth reading [2].

Privilege Separation

If you run wget in a regular Xterm in the same session you use for reading email etc then if there is an exploitable bug in wget then it can be used to access all of your secret data. But it is very easy to run wget from another account. You can run “ssh otheraccount@localhost” and then run the wget command so that it can’t attack you. Don’t run “su – otheraccount” as it is possible for a compromised program to escape from that.

I think that most Linux distributions have supported a “switch user” functionality in the X login system for a number of years. So you should be able to lock your session and then change to a session for another user to run potentially dangerous programs.

It is also possible to use a separate PC for online banking and other high value operations. A 10yo PC is more than adequate for such tasks so you could just use an old PC that has been replaced for regular use for online banking etc. You could boot it from a CD or DVD if you are particularly paranoid about attack.

Browser Features

Google Chrome has a feature to not run plugins unless specifically permitted. This requires a couple of extra mouse actions when watching a TV program on the Internet but prevents random web sites from using Flash and Java which are two of the most common vectors of attack. Chrome also has a feature to check a web site against a Google black list before connecting. When I was running a medium size mail server I often had to determine whether URLs being sent out by customers were legitimate or spam, if a user sent out a URL that’s on Google’s blacklist I would lock their account without doing any further checks.

Conclusion

I think that even among Linux users (who tend to be more careful about security than users of other OSs) using a separate PC and booting from a CD/DVD will generally be regarded as too much effort. Running a full featured web browser like Google Chrome and updating it whenever a new version is released will avoid most problems.

Using wget when you have to reason to be concerned is a possibility, but not only is it slightly inconvenient but it also often won’t download the content that you want (EG in the case of HTML frames).

Monitoring of Monitoring

I was recently asked to get data from a computer that controlled security cameras after a crime had been committed. Due to the potential issues I refused to collect the computer and insisted on performing the work at the office of the company in question. Hard drives are vulnerable to damage from vibration and there is always a risk involved in moving hard drives or systems containing them. A hard drive with evidence of a crime provides additional potential complications. So I wanted to stay within view of the man who commissioned the work just so there could be no misunderstanding.

The system had a single IDE disk. The fact that it had an IDE disk is an indication of the age of the system. One of the benefits of SATA over IDE is that swapping disks is much easier, SATA is designed for hot-swap and even systems that don’t support hot-swap will have less risk of mechanical damage when changing disks if SATA is used instead of IDE. For an appliance type system where a disk might be expected to be changed by someone who’s not a sysadmin SATA provides more benefits over IDE than for some other use cases.

I connected the IDE disk to a USB-IDE device so I could read it from my laptop. But the disk just made repeated buzzing sounds while failing to spin up. This is an indication that the drive was probably experiencing “stiction” which is where the heads stick to the platters and the drive motor isn’t strong enough to pull them off. In some cases hitting a drive will get it working again, but I’m certainly not going to hit a drive that might be subject to legal action! I recommended referring the drive to a data recovery company.

The probability of getting useful data from the disk in question seems very low. It could be that the drive had stiction for months or years. If the drive is recovered it might turn out to have data from years ago and not the recent data that is desired. It is possible that the drive only got stiction after being turned off, but I’ll probably never know.

Doing it Properly

Ever since RAID was introduced there was never an excuse for having a single disk on it’s own with important data. Linux Software RAID didn’t support online rebuild when 10G was a large disk. But since the late 90’s it has worked well and there’s no reason not to use it. The probability of a single IDE disk surviving long enough on it’s own to capture useful security data is not particularly good.

Even with 2 disks in a RAID-1 configuration there is a chance of data loss. Many years ago I ran a server at my parents’ house with 2 disks in a RAID-1 and both disks had errors on one hot summer. I wrote a program that’s like ddrescue but which would read from the second disk if the first gave a read error and ended up not losing any important data AFAIK. BTRFS has some potential benefits for recovering from such situations but I don’t recommend deploying BTRFS in embedded systems any time soon.

Monitoring is a requirement for reliable operation. For desktop systems you can get by without specific monitoring, but that is because you are effectively relying on the user monitoring it themself. Since I started using mon (which is very easy to setup) I’ve had it notify me of some problems with my laptop that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. I think that ideally for desktop systems you should have monitoring of disk space, temperature, and certain critical daemons that need to be running but which the user wouldn’t immediately notice if they crashed (such as cron and syslogd).

There are some companies that provide 3G SIMs for embedded/IoT applications with rates that are significantly cheaper than any of the usual phone/tablet plans if you use small amounts of data or SMS. For a reliable CCTV system the best thing to do would be to have a monitoring contract and have the monitoring system trigger an event if there’s a problem with the hard drive etc and also if the system fails to send a “I’m OK” message for a certain period of time.

I don’t know if people are selling CCTV systems without monitoring to compete on price or if companies are cancelling monitoring contracts to save money. But whichever is happening it’s significantly reducing the value derived from monitoring.

Basics of Backups

I’ve recently had some discussions about backups with people who aren’t computer experts, so I decided to blog about this for the benefit of everyone. Note that this post will deliberately avoid issues that require great knowledge of computers. I have written other posts that will benefit experts.

Essential Requirements

Everything that matters must be stored in at least 3 places. Every storage device will die eventually. Every backup will die eventually. If you have 2 backups then you are covered for the primary storage failing and the first backup failing. Note that I’m not saying “only have 2 backups” (I have many more) but 2 is the bare minimum.

Backups must be in multiple places. One way of losing data is if your house burns down, if that happens all backup devices stored there will be destroyed. You must have backups off-site. A good option is to have backup devices stored by trusted people (friends and relatives are often good options).

It must not be possible for one event to wipe out all backups. Some people use “cloud” backups, there are many ways of doing this with Dropbox, Google Drive, etc. Some of these even have free options for small amounts of storage, for example Google Drive appears to have 15G of free storage which is more than enough for all your best photos and all your financial records. The downside to cloud backups is that a computer criminal who gets access to your PC can wipe it and the backups. Cloud backup can be a part of a sensible backup strategy but it can’t be relied on (also see the paragraph about having at least 2 backups).

Backup Devices

USB flash “sticks” are cheap and easy to use. The quality of some of those devices isn’t too good, but the low price and small size means that you can buy more of them. It would be quite easy to buy 10 USB sticks for multiple copies of data.

Stores that sell office-supplies sell USB attached hard drives which are quite affordable now. It’s easy to buy a couple of those for backup use.

The cheapest option for backing up moderate amounts of data is to get a USB-SATA device. This connects to the PC by USB and has a cradle to accept a SATA hard drive. That allows you to buy cheap SATA disks for backups and even use older disks as backups.

With choosing backup devices consider the environment that they will be stored in. If you want to store a backup in the glove box of your car (which could be good when travelling) then a SD card or USB flash device would be a good choice because they are resistant to physical damage. Note that if you have no other options for off-site storage then the glove box of your car will probably survive if your house burns down.

Multiple Backups

It’s not uncommon for data corruption or mistakes to be discovered some time after it happens. Also in recent times there is a variety of malware that encrypts files and then demands a ransom payment for the decryption key.

To address these problems you should have older backups stored. It’s not uncommon in a corporate environment to have backups every day stored for a week, backups every week stored for a month, and monthly backups stored for some years.

For a home use scenario it’s more common to make backups every week or so and take backups to store off-site when it’s convenient.

Offsite Backups

One common form of off-site backup is to store backup devices at work. If you work in an office then you will probably have some space in a desk drawer for personal items. If you don’t work in an office but have a locker at work then that’s good for storage too, if there is high humidity then SD cards will survive better than hard drives. Make sure that you encrypt all data you store in such places or make sure that it’s not the secret data!

Banks have a variety of ways of storing items. Bank safe deposit boxes can be used for anything that fits and can fit hard drives. If you have a mortgage your bank might give you free storage of “papers” as part of the service (Commonwealth Bank of Australia used to offer that). A few USB sticks or SD cards in an envelope could fit the “papers” criteria. An accounting firm may also store documents for free for you.

If you put a backup on USB or SD storage in your waller then that can also be a good offsite backup. For most people losing data from disk is more common than losing their wallet.

A modern mobile phone can also be used for backing up data while travelling. For a few years I’ve been doing that. But note that you have to encrypt all data stored on a phone so an attacker who compromises your phone can’t steal it. In a typical phone configuration the mass storage area is much less protected than application data. Also note that customs and border control agents for some countries can compel you to provide the keys for encrypted data.

A friend suggested burying a backup device in a sealed plastic container filled with dessicant. That would survive your house burning down and in theory should work. I don’t know of anyone who’s tried it.

Testing

On occasion you should try to read the data from your backups and compare it to the original data. It sometimes happens that backups are discovered to be useless after years of operation.

Secret Data

Before starting a backup it’s worth considering which of the data is secret and which isn’t. Data that is secret needs to be treated differently and a mixture of secret and less secret data needs to be treated as if it’s all secret.

One category of secret data is financial data. If your accountant provides document storage then they can store that, generally your accountant will have all of your secret financial data anyway.

Passwords need to be kept secret but they are also very small. So making a written or printed copy of the passwords is part of a good backup strategy. There are options for backing up paper that don’t apply to data.

One category of data that is not secret is photos. Photos of holidays, friends, etc are generally not that secret and they can also comprise a large portion of the data volume that needs to be backed up. Apparently some people have a backup strategy for such photos that involves downloading from Facebook to restore, that will help with some problems but it’s not adequate overall. But any data that is on Facebook isn’t that secret and can be stored off-site without encryption.

Backup Corruption

With the amounts of data that are used nowadays the probability of data corruption is increasing. If you use any compression program with the data that is backed up (even data that can’t be compressed such as JPEGs) then errors will be detected when you extract the data. So if you have backup ZIP files on 2 hard drives and one of them gets corrupt you will easily be able to determine which one has the correct data.

Failing Systems – update 2016-08-22

When a system starts to fail it may limp along for years and work reasonably well, or it may totally fail soon. At the first sign of trouble you should immediately make a full backup to separate media. Use different media to your regular backups in case the data is corrupt so you don’t overwrite good backups with bad ones.

One traditional sign of problems has been hard drives that make unusual sounds. Modern drives are fairly quiet so this might not be loud enough to notice. Another sign is hard drives that take unusually large amounts of time to read data. If a drive has some problems it might read a sector hundreds or even thousands of times until it gets the data which dramatically reduces system performance. There are lots of other performance problems that can occur (system overheating, software misconfiguration, and others), most of which are correlated with potential data loss.

A modern SSD storage device (as used in a lot of the recent laptops) doesn’t tend to go slow when it nears the end of it’s life. It is more likely to just randomly fail entirely and then work again after a reboot. There are many causes of systems randomly hanging or crashing (of which overheating is common), but they are all correlated with data loss so a good backup is a good idea.

When in doubt make a backup.

Any Suggestions?

If you have any other ideas for backups by typical home users then please leave a comment. Don’t comment on expert issues though, I have other posts for that.

SSD and M.2

The Need for Speed

One of my clients has an important server running ZFS. They need to have a filesystem that detects corruption, while regular RAID is good for the case where a disk gives read errors it doesn’t cover the case where a disk returns bad data and claims it to be good (which I’ve witnessed in BTRFS and ZFS systems). BTRFS is good for the case of a single disk or a RAID-1 array but I believe that the RAID-5 code for BTRFS is not sufficiently tested for business use. ZFS doesn’t perform very well due to the checksums on data and metadata requiring multiple writes for a single change which also causes more fragmentation. This isn’t a criticism of ZFS, it’s just an engineering trade-off for the data integrity features.

ZFS supports read-caching on a SSD (the L2ARC) and write-back caching (ZIL). To get the best benefit of L2ARC and ZIL you need fast SSD storage. So now with my client investigating 10 gigabit Ethernet I have to investigate SSD.

For some time SSDs have been in the same price range as hard drives, starting at prices well below $100. Now there are some SSDs on sale for as little as $50. One issue with SATA for server use is that SATA 3.0 (which was released in 2009 and is most commonly used nowadays) is limited to 600MB/s. That isn’t nearly adequate if you want to serve files over 10 gigabit Ethernet. SATA 3.2 was released in 2013 and supports 1969MB/s but I doubt that there’s much hardware supporting that. See the SATA Wikipedia page for more information.

Another problem with SATA is getting the devices physically installed. My client has a new Dell server that has plenty of spare PCIe slots but no spare SATA connectors or SATA power connectors. I could have removed the DVD drive (as I did for some tests before deploying the server) but that’s ugly and only gives 1 device while you need 2 devices in a RAID-1 configuration for ZIL.

M.2

M.2 is a new standard for expansion cards, it supports SATA and PCIe interfaces (and USB but that isn’t useful at this time). The wikipedia page for M.2 is interesting to read for background knowledge but isn’t helpful if you are about to buy hardware.

The first M.2 card I bought had a SATA interface, then I was unable to find a local company that could sell a SATA M.2 host adapter. So I bought a M.2 to SATA adapter which made it work like a regular 2.5″ SATA device. That’s working well in one of my home PCs but isn’t what I wanted. Apparently systems that have a M.2 socket on the motherboard will usually take either SATA or NVMe devices.

The most important thing I learned is to buy the SSD storage device and the host adapter from the same place then you are entitled to a refund if they don’t work together.

The alternative to the SATA (AHCI) interface on an M.2 device is known as NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express), see the Wikipedia page for NVMe for details. NVMe not only gives a higher throughput but it gives more command queues and more commands per queue which should give significant performance benefits for a device with multiple banks of NVRAM. This is what you want for server use.

Eventually I got a M.2 NVMe device and a PCIe card for it. A quick test showed sustained transfer speeds of around 1500MB/s which should permit saturating a 10 gigabit Ethernet link in some situations.

One annoyance is that the M.2 devices have a different naming convention to regular hard drives. I have devices /dev/nvme0n1 and /dev/nvme1n1, apparently that is to support multiple storage devices on one NVMe interface. Partitions have device names like /dev/nvme0n1p1 and /dev/nvme0n1p2.

Power Use

I recently upgraded my Thinkpad T420 from a 320G hard drive to a 500G SSD which made it faster but also surprisingly quieter – you never realise how noisy hard drives are until they go away. My laptop seemed to feel cooler, but that might be my imagination.

The i5-2520M CPU in my Thinkpad has a TDP of 35W but uses a lot less than that as I almost never have 4 cores in use. The z7k320 320G hard drive is listed as having 0.8W “low power idle” and 1.8W for read-write, maybe Linux wasn’t putting it in the “low power idle” mode. The Samsung 500G 850 EVO SSD is listed as taking 0.4W when idle and up to 3.5W when active (which would not be sustained for long on a laptop). If my CPU is taking an average of 10W then replacing the hard drive with a SSD might have reduced the power use of the non-screen part by 10%, but I doubt that I could notice such a small difference.

I’ve read some articles about power use on the net which can be summarised as “SSDs can draw more power than laptop hard drives but if you do the same amount of work then the SSD will be idle most of the time and not use much power”.

I wonder if the SSD being slightly thicker than the HDD it replaced has affected the airflow inside my Thinkpad.

From reading some of the reviews it seems that there are M.2 storage devices drawing over 7W! That’s going to create some cooling issues on desktop PCs but should be OK in a server. For laptop use they will hopefully release M.2 devices designed for low power consumption.

The Future

M.2 is an ideal format for laptops due to being much smaller and lighter than 2.5″ SSDs. Spinning media doesn’t belong in a modern laptop and using a SATA SSD is an ugly hack when compared to M.2 support on the motherboard.

Intel has released the X99 chipset with M.2 support (see the Wikipedia page for Intel X99) so it should be commonly available on desktops in the near future. For most desktop systems an M.2 device would provide all the storage that is needed (or 2*M.2 in a RAID-1 configuration for a workstation). That would give all the benefits of reduced noise and increased performance that regular SSDs provide, but with better performance and fewer cables inside the PC.

For a corporate desktop PC I think the ideal design would have only M.2 internal storage and no support for 3.5″ disks or a DVD drive. That would allow a design that is much smaller than a current SFF PC.

802.1x Authentication on Debian

I recently had to setup some Linux workstations with 802.1x authentication (described as “Ethernet authentication”) to connect to a smart switch. The most useful web site I found was the Ubuntu help site about 802.1x Authentication [1]. But it didn’t describe exactly what I needed so I’m writing a more concise explanation.

The first thing to note is that the authentication mechanism works the same way as 802.11 wireless authentication, so it’s a good idea to have the wpasupplicant package installed on all laptops just in case you need to connect to such a network.

The first step is to create a wpa_supplicant config file, I named mine /etc/wpa_supplicant_SITE.conf. The file needs contents like the following:

network={
 key_mgmt=IEEE8021X
 eap=PEAP
 identity="USERNAME"
 anonymous_identity="USERNAME"
 password="PASS"
 phase1="auth=MD5"
 phase2="auth=CHAP password=PASS"
 eapol_flags=0
}

The first difference between what I use and the Ubuntu example is that I’m using “eap=PEAP“, that is an issue of the way the network is configured, whoever runs your switch can tell you the correct settings for that. The next difference is that I’m using “auth=CHAP” and the Ubuntu example has “auth=PAP“. The difference between those protocols is that CHAP has a challenge-response and PAP just has the password sent (maybe encrypted) over the network. If whoever runs the network says that they “don’t store unhashed passwords” or makes any similar claim then they are almost certainly using CHAP.

Change USERNAME and PASS to your user name and password.

wpa_supplicant -c /etc/wpa_supplicant_SITE.conf -D wired -i eth0

The above command can be used to test the operation of wpa_supplicant.

Successfully initialized wpa_supplicant
eth0: Associated with 00:01:02:03:04:05
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-EAP-STARTED EAP authentication started
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-EAP-PROPOSED-METHOD vendor=0 method=25
TLS: Unsupported Phase2 EAP method 'CHAP'
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-EAP-METHOD EAP vendor 0 method 25 (PEAP) selected
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-EAP-PEER-CERT depth=0 subject=''
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-EAP-PEER-CERT depth=0 subject=''
EAP-MSCHAPV2: Authentication succeeded
EAP-TLV: TLV Result - Success - EAP-TLV/Phase2 Completed
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-EAP-SUCCESS EAP authentication completed successfully
eth0: CTRL-EVENT-CONNECTED - Connection to 00:01:02:03:04:05 completed [id=0 id_str=]

Above is the output of a successful test with wpa_supplicant. I replaced the MAC of the switch with 00:01:02:03:04:05. Strangely it doesn’t like “CHAP” but is automatically selecting “MSCHAPV2” and working, maybe anything other than “PAP” would do.

auto eth0
iface eth0 inet dhcp
  wpa-driver wired
  wpa-conf /etc/wpa_supplicant_SITE.conf

Above is a snippet of /etc/network/interfaces that works with this configuration.

Nexus 6P and Galaxy S5 Mini

Just over a month ago I ordered a new Nexus 6P [1]. I’ve had it for over a month now and it’s time to review it and the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini I also bought.

Security

The first noteworthy thing about this phone is the fingerprint scanner on the back. The recommended configuration is to use your fingerprint for unlocking the phone which allows a single touch on the scanner to unlock the screen without the need to press any other buttons. To unlock with a pattern or password you need to first press the “power” button to get the phone’s attention.

I have been considering registering a fingerprint from my non-dominant hand to reduce the incidence of accidentally unlocking it when carrying it or fiddling with it.

The phone won’t complete the boot process before being unlocked. This is a good security feature.

Android version 6 doesn’t assign permissions to apps at install time, they have to be enabled at run time (at least for apps that support Android 6). So you get lots of questions while running apps about what they are permitted to do. Unfortunately there’s no “allow for the duration of this session” option.

A new Android feature prevents changing security settings when there is an “overlay running”. The phone instructs you to disable overlay access for the app in question but that’s not necessary. All that is necessary is for the app to stop using the overlay feature. I use the Twilight app [2] to dim the screen and use redder colors at night. When I want to change settings at night I just have to pause that app and there’s no need to remove the access from it – note that all the web pages and online documentation saying otherwise is wrong.

Another new feature is to not require unlocking while at home. This can be a convenience feature but fingerprint unlocking is so easy that it doesn’t provide much benefit. The downside of enabling this is that if someone stole your phone they could visit your home to get it unlocked. Also police who didn’t have a warrant permitting search of a phone could do so anyway without needing to compel the owner to give up the password.

Design

This is one of the 2 most attractive phones I’ve owned (the other being the sparkly Nexus 4). I think that the general impression of the appearance is positive as there are transparent cases on sale. My phone is white and reminds me of EVE from the movie Wall-E.

Cables

This phone uses the USB Type-C connector, which isn’t news to anyone. What I didn’t realise is that full USB-C requires that connector at both ends as it’s not permitted to have a data cable with USB-C at the device and and USB-A at the host end. The Nexus 6P ships with a 1M long charging cable that has USB-C at both ends and a ~10cm charging cable with USB-C at one end and type A at the other (for the old batteries and the PCs that don’t have USB-C). I bought some 2M long USB-C to USB-A cables for charging my new phone with my old chargers, but I haven’t yet got a 1M long cable. Sometimes I need a cable that’s longer than 10cm but shorter than 2M.

The USB-C cables are all significantly thicker than older USB cables. Part of that would be due to having many more wires but presumably part of it would be due to having thicker power wires for delivering 3A. I haven’t measured power draw but it does seem to charge faster than older phones.

Overall the process of converting to USB-C is going to be a lot more inconvenient than USB SuperSpeed (which I could basically ignore as non-SuperSpeed connectors worked).

It will be good when laptops with USB-C support become common, it should allow thinner laptops with more ports.

One problem I initially had with my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was the Micro-USB SuperSpeed socket on the phone being more fiddly for the Micro-USB charging plug I used. After a while I got used to that but it was still an annoyance. Having a symmetrical plug that can go into the phone either way is a significant convenience.

Calendars and Contacts

I share most phone contacts with my wife and also have another list that is separate. In the past I had used the Samsung contacts system for the contacts that were specific to my phone and a Google account for contacts that are shared between our phones. Now that I’m using a non-Samsung phone I got another Gmail account for the purpose of storing contacts. Fortunately you can get as many Gmail accounts as you want. But it would be nice if Google supported multiple contact lists and multiple calendars on a single account.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini

Shortly after buying the Nexus 6P I decided that I spend enough time in pools and hot tubs that having a waterproof phone would be a good idea. Probably most people wouldn’t consider reading email in a hot tub on a cruise ship to be an ideal holiday, but it works for me. The Galaxy S5 Mini seems to be the cheapest new phone that’s waterproof. It is small and has a relatively low resolution screen, but it’s more than adequate for a device that I’ll use for an average of a few hours a week. I don’t plan to get a SIM for it, I’ll just use Wifi from my main phone.

One noteworthy thing is the amount of bloatware on the Samsung. Usually when configuring a new phone I’m so excited about fancy new hardware that I don’t notice it much. But this time buying the new phone wasn’t particularly exciting as I had just bought a phone that’s much better. So I had more time to notice all the annoyances of having to download updates to Samsung apps that I’ll never use. The Samsung device manager facility has been useful for me in the past and the Samsung contact list was useful for keeping a second address book until I got a Nexus phone. But most of the Samsung apps and 3d party apps aren’t useful at all.

It’s bad enough having to install all the Google core apps. I’ve never read mail from my Gmail account on my phone. I use Fetchmail to transfer it to an IMAP folder on my personal mail server and I’d rather not have the Gmail app on my Android devices. Having any apps other than the bare minimum seems like a bad idea, more apps in the Android image means larger downloads for an over-the-air update and also more space used in the main partition for updates to apps that you don’t use.

Not So Exciting

In recent times there hasn’t been much potential for new features in phones. All phones have enough RAM and screen space for all common apps. While the S5 Mini has a small screen it’s not that small, I spent many years with desktop PCs that had a similar resolution. So while the S5 Mini was released a couple of years ago that doesn’t matter much for most common use. I wouldn’t want it for my main phone but for a secondary phone it’s quite good.

The Nexus 6P is a very nice phone, but apart from USB-C, the fingerprint reader, and the lack of a stylus there’s not much noticeable difference between that and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 I was using before.

I’m generally happy with my Nexus 6P, but I think that anyone who chooses to buy a cheaper phone probably isn’t going to be missing a lot.