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.

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.

Looking Through a New Lens

Zoom with Dual Monitors

I’ve recently been looking at traditional video conferencing through a new lens, both literally and figuratively. One of our projects this summer was to update a mid-sized Conference Room in our office. This room has been outfitted with a Polycom HDX-7000 and two 50″ LG plasma screens for a number of years. This Polycom unit was from a different era, and was difficult for most anyone other than IT staff to navigate the remote and settings.

My plan for video conferencing in this room revolved around a few key components. To get started, I purchased a Logitech Group system with a high definition Carl Zeiss PTZ camera. This is the Cadillac of USB connected video conference systems, and comes in right around the $1,000 price point. Having a high-quality audio and video session with PTZ presets was key in supplanting our H.323 system. The Logitech Group system delivers on all those points.

Zoom with Screen Share

This camera system is connected up to a modestly equipped Mac Mini (~$800) that is tucked away in an equipment cabinet. A bluetooth keyboard and mouse make it easy to interact when needed. The built-in HDMI output is connected to one display and the second Mini DisplayPort is connected to another HDMI display via a dongle. Being able to run true dual monitors to separate video and content is another longstanding H.323 feature that I could not live without.

Lastly, enter Zoom. I cannot say enough good things about this product. It is simple, intuitive, and it just works. It has become the defacto standard for video conferencing in our area and across the state. I grappled with the idea of setting up a Zoom Room but ultimately decided to configure a generic Zoom Pro account for this setup. It does everything we need it to do and is a familiar interface to navigate.

The Mac Mini is configured with automatic login, and the Zoom app automatically launches and signs in. Enabling dual monitors in the Zoom preferences is as simple as a checkbox, as is entering full screen automatically when starting or joining a meeting. Now when someone starts sharing their screen, one monitor will automatically go to full-screen content and you can still see video participants on the other monitor. You can also toggle between Gallery and Active Speaker as well, which is handy.

All in all, this sub-$2,000 setup rivals many of the high-end and high-dollar video conferencing systems I’ve used over the years. I’m anxious to see how this works going forward, but early indicators point to a huge success!

Radar Love

I am a big fan of digital signage, and my hardware and software of choice to deliver this is a Chromebit and Rise Vision, respectively. These are a powerful combination to bring displays to life in your organization.

One of the components most people want to incorporate into their signage is some basic weather information. There are scads of widgets for current conditions and forecasts. However, finding a customizable radar loop is a little more challenging.

For years my go-to choice for this was Weather Underground’s Full Screen Weather. It was great! Was…great…until they changed it. After a seemingly minor update it would no longer remember your location, zoom level, or other preferences if you embedded the map’s URL. I struggled for a long time to find a viable alternative, until today when I discovered a different way to embed weather radar!

This method still utilizes Weather Underground to deliver our content, but it leverages Nexrad radar images. These are not as elegant as the ones I had previously used, but they are still very functional and allow a number of customizations.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Go to www.wunderground.com
  2. Type in your City & State in the search bar
  3. Then find the link for Nexrad radar
  4. Choose your options, zoom level, and animated frame rate (I found that 18 frames is close to a 1-hour loop)
  5. Click on Save Image (this opens a new tab)
  6. Copy that URL and use it to embed a real-time radar loop!

For example, the image you see below is embedded using this code:

<img src="https://radblast.wunderground.com/cgi-bin/radar/WUNIDS_map?station=UEX&amp;brand=wui&amp;num=18&amp;delay=15&amp;type=N0R&amp;frame=0&amp;scale=0.3130434782608696&amp;noclutter=1&amp;showstorms=0&amp;mapx=400&amp;mapy=240&amp;centerx=652.3611111111111&amp;centery=319.8611111111111&amp;transx=252.3611111111111&amp;transy=79.86111111111109&amp;showlabels=1&amp;severe=0&amp;rainsnow=1&amp;lightning=Hide&amp;smooth=1&amp;rand=24970480&amp;lat=40.43999863&amp;lon=-99.37000275&amp;label=Holdrege%2C NE" />