Keep an Eye on Things

PRTG Dashboard

Network management systems (NMS) are a key component of any technology infrastructure. They provide real-time monitoring and reporting of a variety of hardware and software components on your network. Over the years I’ve had experience with a number of software packages – Nagios, What’s Up, Zabbix, Zenoss, SolarWinds, and most recently, PRTG.

Some forward-thinking colleagues in other ESUs have been singing the praises of PRTG for a few years, but I wasn’t so quick to jump on the bandwagon. A little over a year ago I had the chance to get in on a group buy with them at a great price, but I still wasn’t sold. I was convinced that I could get what I needed from a free or community supported tool. After floundering in trial implementations with a couple other tools, I finally gave in and bought PRTG.

We’ve only been running PRTG in production for a couple weeks, but I am wholeheartedly convinced that it is worth every penny. In that short time, we have already identified a failed power supply, a degraded RAID array, a bad ROM battery, and other performance tweaks on a number of servers. We also have the most accurate visibility into our bandwidth utilization that we have ever had, which helps greatly when purchasing firewalls, bidding circuits, and buying internet capacity.

One of the things I love most about PRTG is the Maps functionality. It lets you build your own custom dashboards that can show you how things are performing on your network. The image above is a screenshot of the dashboard I have running on a TV in my office all day long. At a glance, I can keep tabs on anything happening in our area. Having this information is invaluable in our line of work.

Leaders are Readers

Harry Truman is quoted as saying, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Not that many years ago if someone had asked me what was the last book I read, I would struggle to tell them. Over the past couple years I have been reading regularly, and it’s been a good habit for me to resume.

Right now I am reading two books concurrently, both as part of book study groups. The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros is the book I am reading with ESU 11 librarians, and Leadership Redefined by Dave Weber is the other book we are reading as an ESU-wide book study. Both book studies are covering one chapter per week, and we post our thoughts and reflections in a Google Community. The schedule has been easy enough to keep, and it’s nice to hear other people’s thoughts as we progress through the chapters.

Most of my reading falls squarely under the non-fiction, professional development heading. I also listen to quite a few audiobooks as part of my daily commute (one hour each way). One of the more recent audiobooks I listened to was What EveryBODY is Saying authored by former FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro. I’ve always been pretty observant and receptive to nonverbal communication, but this book was a real eye-opener.

I do occasionally venture out of the self-help section and enjoy reading for pleasure. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I finished reading Winging It! which is a stunning compilation of short stories outlining the aviation career of Jack Jefford. Jack is a distant relative in my family, so reading about his trials and tribulations as an Alaskan aviator made for a very enjoyable read.

Not surprisingly, I am also an avid reader and follower of various blogs. This is a great way to stay current with industry trends and news happenings. The byte sized reading is like a modern-day version of reading the daily newspaper. Feedly is my app of choice for reading various blogs through their RSS feed.

Reading is inarguably one of the best ways to grow professionally, learn, and it’s also a great mechanism to relax. I spend a lot of hours each day glued to a screen, so cracking open a paperback is a welcome release for the eyes and mind.

Survey Says!

I’ve always been a big fan of game shows. I grew up watching the Price is Right, Press Your Luck, and a number of others. This fall I had the opportunity to lead a team building activity for our all staff opening day. I decided I wanted to channel my inner Richard Dawson and host a Family Feud style game show for our staff.

I searched the ends of the internet to find a customizable Family Feud game. There are a number of free PowerPoint templates available, but by far the best one I found was from a site called Rusnak Creative. This site has a slew of PowerPoint templates for a variety of game shows, and they are all top notch. Many of these are fully editable, and come complete with instructions, sound effects, the whole shebang!

I knew that I wanted my Family Feud to be education related, so I found this site that had a full listing of questions from four different seasons of the show. I parsed through them looking for any that had keywords such as teacher, student, class, or school. I was able to build a great activity that got everyone up on their feet, thinking, laughing, and enjoying our time together.

I’ve been able to get a lot of mileage out of this game show concept. I’ve already repeated my Family Feud two more times since then, and it’s always a hit! Plus, it’s really fun to be a game show host for half an hour.

Get to the Bottom of It

In late August I was doing a training for some of our staff when I went to pull up a page on our website. Our normally speedy WordPress site was unusually sluggish, which always makes for an awkward pause in the middle of a presentation. Eventually, the page loaded and I went about my business not paying much mind to it.

A couple days later I had a report from one of our schools that their website was also loading slowly. After doing a little digging I noticed that all sites on our VPS (Virtual Private Server) were intermittently loading slowly or timing out. I began running a ping to our server and noticed that it would drop offline at random intervals. “No big deal,” I thought to myself, as I quickly remoted into the server to give it a reboot. We have had our BlueHost VPS for years, and it’s always just worked. The server rebooted and things seemed better initially, but the problem quickly reappeared.

Thinking the problem was surely some WordPress plugin gone awry, I began the process of disabling plugins one-by-one, then waiting a minute or two to see if the problem reappeared. Much to my chagrin, I could not find a plugin causing this issue. I then began running WordPress in debug mode to see if I could get to the bottom of things. This sent me down numerous rabbit holes, none of which resolved the issue.

Frustrated, I finally gave in and called tech support. They were happy to assist me, but quickly realized that I had already exhausted all of the usual suspects. A level two engineer joined the call and quickly pointed the finger at one particular WordPress plugin. I waited until off hours to fully disable the plugin and even contacted the developer to report the findings of the engineer. Lo and behold, this did not fix the issue either.

After getting back in touch with support, they said that the problem had to be with one of my sites, and that I should go through and begin disabling them until I find the culprit. I relayed to them how difficult this is when you have a multi-network WordPress installation. They insisted that was the problem, so I begrudgingly complied. That weekend I decided to take a more drastic approach and moved all of my websites into a quarantine folder, inaccessible by the web server altogether. Within minutes the VPS was still losing connection, so I knew the issue was not with any of my sites. I quickly fired off an email to update the ticket with my findings and requested that they move my account to a different server.

Days went by with no reply. My frustration grew as the issue became more prominent. I sent more ticket updates as I thought of anything else to try. I got passed to different engineers, who all found something the other had missed, but the problem persisted. I was ready to jump ship from BlueHost, already researching other VPS providers. Finally, after more than two weeks, I get an email update from an engineer saying they found a bad stick of RAM in the host server, and that I should be good to go. And that’s all it was. A bad stick of memory that is now forever stuck in my memory.

The Power of Zero

A few weeks ago I was training new staff on various pieces of technology we use in our organization. Being a huge supporter of GSuite tools, one of the first things I show them is how to navigate the GMail web interface. Using my own account during the demo, someone in the room piped up, “You really don’t have any messages in your inbox?”

This sent me down a path explaining the theory (or to some, myth), of the magical land known as Inbox Zero. A quick Google search of the term defines Inbox Zero as the following:

Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.

The same article attributes this technique to Merlin Mann. If you have the time I highly suggest watching Merlin’s Google Tech Talk on the subject. It’s a powerful technique, that keeps your psyche free for higher level thinking. Not to mention, it’s far more efficient than reading, then re-reading an email multiple times while you try to figure out what to do.

I once heard someone make the analogy comparing your email inbox to your physical mailbox. They noted how unusual it would be to go out to the curbside, open your mailbox, start sifting through letters, opening some, shoving others back in the box, and then returning to the house with only a few. Yet many of us do exactly that with regards to our email. For our postal mail, most of us typically process that in some fashion or another. I start by bringing it all into the house, then I might quickly discard some things into the trash, open others and sort into things that need action, like paying a bill, or others I may read immediately, or possibly sort it into another pile to be read later.

The same processing could, and should, be applied to our digital mail as well. When a message comes in we need to decide what to do with it. A popular method for this process is called the Four D’s – Delete it, Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it. This is a simple way to quickly plow through that bloated inbox and get it down to something more manageable.

Keeping your inbox clean is a liberating feeling. I admit that there are days when this is just not possible. Life happens and we have to respond. But the sooner we can wade through our email (pun fully intended), the sooner we can get back to being productive.