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Red Hat System Administration Class

This week I completed a week long training class on RHEL system administration. The class “RHEL 124″ was centralized for Windows admins looking to break into Linux administation. Had I paid more attention I would have picked the CLI class instead.

Fortunately I’m comfortable enough in Linux these days that I was able to just do all the classwork using the CLI equivalent of the GUI tools that were taught. But this was a small reprieve from what was otherwise a horrible class. I would like to point out I don’t believe it’s in any way the fault of the instructor at Exit Certified – my beef is with the way in which Red Hat lays out their cource objectives and materials.

My favorite part of the class was where we were given a ‘case study’ scenario in which we were directed to log into a fictional user’s account (that’s not our own) and sort through the pictures of their wife saved in their home folder. We had to sort them, and delete the “bad” pictures.  I can’t make this stuff up!  Other tests were much more mundane and had a complete lack of realistic scenarios or creativity. Usually the case studies were barely any more than “Do the stuff we just taught you on the last page, but pretend your name is Bill while you’re doing it and that your manager is micromanaging so much that it’s weird he isn’t just doing it himself.” In fact, the first step for most case studies is to run a script that undoes all the settings you just made while learning how to do a specific task. You have to do that because the case study invariably has you set nearly the exact same settings a second time.

To me, the class more resembled “how to use advanced features of a desktop OS”.  The real system administration taks were all under the hood – I caught glimpses of them by opening and evaluating the “lab-setup-*” scripts that would prepare the machines for specific case studies. Those automated scripts… those are real sysadmin tools. But we never even went over the ‘cat’ command that one would use to look at those scripts in a real world.

I can’t recommend enough that if you’re looking to break into Linux system administration, take the boot camp version of the class, and bring a healthy dose of imagination and work experience to be able to put what you learn into actual realistic system administration know-how.

All In

The sales people at Symantec never cease to amaze me.  They somehow convinced people at work that Altiris will solve every problem they have and replace all other tools we use.  I’m pretty flabbergasted!

Today I told someone that although a script could be made to add IE bookmarks to a base Windows 7 image, GPOs could do the same thing but using a couple mouse clicks instead of a customized solution.  I was told that the scripted solution would be preferred so that we could make better use of Altiris CMS tools. Despite arguing the benefits of keeping things simple, picking a non-custom solution, and using the best tool for the job, I’m instead stuck with calling a meeting for all of the operations group to “get everyone on the same page.”  Now, I want to make it clear that the person I was talking to didn’t do anything wrong – the problem is something different.  And for this post I’m choosing to blame Symantec for selling such a good cure-all that someone we’re all hoodwinked into using this one tool for everything.

Thankfully, I know that the collective smartitude of us all will overcome any single bout of shortsightedness (and let’s be honest, I’ve always got my share of moments like that)

Troubleshooting at Home

Somehow, even though I’m horrible at returning email and phone calls, I still have a customer who comes to me regularly for consulting advice and doesn’t get the “family/close friend discount”.  She called me up last week because her kitchen computer and her laptop were dying – they wouldn’t boot up, and were constantly getting errors while booted up.  She lives just far enough away that I don’t like to go pick up the computers and take them back to my garage.  Also, I just got a new set of computer parts and it was time to rebuild my system.  Oh, and the MDT 2012 beta came out recently.  Well, that sounds like the perfect storm for setting up my own deployment server at home!

Within an hour (not counting the time that was just watching progress bars) I was able to automate the Windows install for myself, and create a hardcore USB WinPE recovery boot drive, kick off a new OS install on my SSD and drive out to recover files and run chkdsk on the broken kitchen computer. I also brought along my iPad and used it to take notes instead of my leather notebook that I’ve had for the past 15 years.  Although the stuff I was doing was rather simple compared to my official salaried job, I felt like a technopimp all weekend long and loved strutting my stuff.

I’d post more, but a system with a Windows Experience Index of 7.6 needs to play some games.  By tomorrow my machine will be obsolete I’m sure.

TechEd 2011

And another week flys by!  I barely cooled my jets from Symantec Vision and I’m off to another conference.  Where Vision felt like a mini-vacation, TechEd was Serious Business™. Another great experience, and for people just getting into the enterprise world of IT + CMS it’s a must-have.  Unlike Vision, the sessions/panels I attended were less product-pitch and more real-world lessons and insight.  Worth the price of the pass and ticket for sure, but the definite complaint is all the e-mails and phone calls from various vendors wanting to sell me stuff.  I promise I only went to your booth for the free light-up pen.

Speaking of which…. damn you TrainStation.com – You tweeted at me saying I won 1000 dollars, but only later did I find out that it’s store-credit for your Video Professor-esque training classes. How bittersweet (80%/20%)!

A Week with Altiris

Last week I had a posse of Symantec product specialists in my office (the WHOLE week) to help me stand up a brand new Symantec/Altiris 7.1 CMS environment.  The goal is to replace four different helpdesk’s CMS solutions (including the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit stuff I am currently maintaining for one of them) with this shiny new Altiris product.

There’s just one problem with last week’s engagement: During the initial install for Altiris, I had a single setting that “wasn’t optimized”. Just that one setting was enough to make the first three days of work pretty stressful for everyone and not nearly as smooth as it ought to be. This was no fault of Symantec but because it took so long to address the individual symptoms, by the time we identified the root cause of the problems we had already fixed all the issues associated with it. Our environment is up and looking good (although we have yet to insert the actual software and deployment images we’ll be using Altiris for). Before the Symantec gang left, they helped to  identify the appropriate next steps that I’ll be working on this next few weeks. All in all, the week was a success and we’re on a good path for fully switching over to the new CMS system.

…But I’ve got this nagging in the back of my head that my environment isn’t perfect because of that one wrong setting. I’m king of CMS at the office right now. When working with the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, I must have erased everything and installed it again 10 times before I felt like I had it just right. I wish it would be an easy call to do the same with Altiris, but now it’s not just my time – I would be throwing away an extremely valuable week’s worth of collaborated effort and the stakes are a lot higher. I have to champion Altiris and help prove its worth to four different Helpdesk teams, so what do I do? I don’t have an answer for this yet and it might not even by my call to make.

A Collection of Resources

After writing my beginner’s guide it was immediately clear to me that I provided too much text, not enough pictures, and other people have already done what I did.

Instead of continuing down that path, maybe it will be more helpful to list out the various resources I use when I’m trying to automate a software or OS installation.

 

  • ASCII Art Table – If you’re using the command line and trying to make neat little menus with borders or just to add some pizazz, you’ll want to look up the character codes to have things display correctly. Probably not super useful in these modern times, but every ocne in a while I use something from the Extended ASCII codes to designate a section or to draw attention to stuff being output to a log file
  • Command Line Output Redirection – This is a staple for good scripting. Using > to redirect output to a file is the easiest way to set up logging. You can easily log standard output (success/expected output) and separately log standard error (failure messages)
  • Command Line Details – As soon as I start adding any complexity to batch files, I get ready to queue up this site. It does a great job of breaking down IF statements, FOR statements and has a lot of great general knowledge stuff that Microsoft Technet articles just don’t properly convey
  • Technet Script Center – Chances are good that what ever you’re trying to script has been scripted before. This is a great repository of all kinds of Windows scripts in various scripting languages
  • Sysprep Troubleshooting – Although it’s only dealing with XP, when you’re having difficulty with Sysprep there can be all kinds of reasons.  This is a great collection of troubleshooting pointers that is a great starting point when you’re stumped
  • Create a Custom Windows PE Image – Download the Windows AIK and regardless of any other tools you can have a mini boot environment that comes in at around 150 MB. This is the basis of many “uber” boot CDs. It’s Windows Lite that you can make run remote desktop, copy files, map network drives, and just about any other Windows basic troubleshooting that you need to do.  Trivia fact: When you install Windows Vista or Windows 7 from disc, you’re actually booting to WinPE which then launches the setup.exe file
  • Windows XP Storage Drivers – If you’re using RAID, AHCI or SAS hard drives you’re in for tough road to automating OS deployments. While this link is a little dated it will help you get on the road to expanding storage driver support on legacy OSes.  For even more (but also outdated) help, this Symantec post is also great (it’s to help with automating installs using Altiris but works for any situation)
  • The IT Bros’ Windows 7 Sysprep Guide – This is an off-shoot of a blog that originally posted this awesome guide to working with Sysprep in Windows 7.  If you really want to get in there and learn how to sysprep, do what I did and print this article out. Trust me it’s great.
  • Windows SysInternals – All kinds of utilities that add extra troubleshooting functionality to Windows
  • AppDeploy – When you’re automating software installs, you might as well always go here first. Nearly any installer you can think of, someone’s already posted exactly what you need to do to turn it into something deployed silently across the network while disabling the desktop shortcut and whatever other bells and whistles you could come up with.  Usually you want to check out the Package KB section first, but if you can’t find what you need then try the Software KB. And if you want to learn how people first come up with these silent install commands check out the Articles, FAQs and Tips & Tricks sections. One of the articles in there is great for explaining how to deal with installers that use an InstallShield EXE instead of a standard MSI file (and yes, it explains what the hell that means if you’re totally clueless)
  • Blogs – Here’s some very useful Microsoft blogs that help with deployments, especially related to the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit:

There’s a lot more and I’ll come back to this post and update as I can with additional resources I find myself falling back on.