Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

VSO IT Do It With Everything: The Faulty Switch

June 24, 2011

In what I hope will be a final post in the VSO IT Do It With… series I’ve had a problem which called upon all my bodging newfound skills using paperclips, staples and masking tape.

To explain this I’ll try and be not overly tecchie and then put the tecchie bit in italic underneath for anyone who cares.

Faulty Switch

The switch is the thing that connects all our computers together and onto the internet.

Yesterday I needed to turn it off and back on. Turned off ok but wouldn’t come back on; either the power light flickered a bit or just didn’t light up.

We have a gigabit switch at the core of our direct-internet network (not the GRN WAN one). The server on that network which does routing and DHCP locked up and needed power-cycled.

Normally after its back up I’ll drop the switch for a few seconds causing Windows to see ‘disconnected’ and then ‘reconnected’ and so ask for an IP address (rather then keeping the auto-assigned one while DHCP was down for a random period of time).

Business Continuity

As I stood thinking “well that’s not good” more people kept coming to the office asking about the internet. Facebook – and occasionally some health sites – being critical.

The original fault had lost us internet for 5 minutes or so and now they were getting messages telling them I’d unplugged cables (as the switch was off).

Realising this wasn’t going to be simple to sort out I scrabled around and raided my office for my desk switch and numerous cables and adapters.

Within 45 minutes of the original failure I had most of the offices connected using various means (and being lucky in that a few of the offices are vacant right now).

Facebook access was saved.

Using an 8-port 100mbps switch normally on my desk, the spare LAN ports on a wireless router we use just as an access point and just the right number of long cables I had spare (long enough to reach the router) I managed to restore connectivity for 9 locations (one of which was our secondary wifi access point serving 4 PCs and many laptops).


Using various highly advanced techniques (a box with probes that tells me what’s happening) I found the power was coming into the switch.

Opening it up and probing different bits narrowed the issue down to being the PSU/power board; this is the bit that takes the mains voltage and converts it down to a lower voltage suitable for small electrical use.

To be certain this was the faulty component I bypassed it and connected another power supply directly to the switch.

The power board was giving 12VDC out but when connected to the main switch board the output at the connection terminals dropped to 4.5VDC.

Hoping that the power side was faulty and not the switch board I used a variable supply and a fan connector (to plug into the port) to see if it would power up – it did!

Testing switch with a small variable DC power supply to check circuit

Replacement Power Supply

With the faulty board identified it was just a matter of removing it and finding something else to provide the 12V to the switch.

Unfortunately the variable supply used for testing was nowhere near powerful enough to actually power the switch in operation.

A power supply unit for a computer though did provide 12V and would be. It’s possible to trick one of these into thinking the computer is on and so then use its power for the switch.

Normally you would use a paperclip to ‘trick it’ but after testing it with the paperclip I went one better and decided to put an on/off switch in as well.

The all had the added bonus of clipping lots of wires making me feel like a bomb disposal expert.

I decided to use the 12VDC output from an ATX PSU as the variable supply was rated 500mA and the original internal supply rated to 3A (the ATX supply I used was ok to 14.5A).

Rather than just bridging the ATX connector to short-start I cut a switch off an old AT supply and connected that to some pronged connector I had from an old variable supply which perfectly fitted the pins.

Then it was just a matter of taking the 12V feed from one of the molex connectors to my fan-connector already connected to the DC input on the switch board.

The Fulty Power Supply Unit

Faulty original PSU/transformer-rectifier whatsit

Bridging an ATX PSU to a switch - better than a paperclip longterm

Better than a paperclip - connection to short the ATX supply into working when switch closed

Using an AT switch to control an ATX bridge, held on with masking tape

On/off switch mounted on new external PSU

The Frankenswitch Lives

Closing the on/off switch amazingly now led to the PSU spinning up and the switch itself turning on in a flurry of self-test lights.

I’d disconnected an internal fan that was sticky and may be the cause of the problem so I’ve sat the whole thing on top of some big fans blowing air through it. Though this probably would make a fire worse not better. My on/off switch design through should burn through (and shut off) quicker than a paperclip though.

I’ve started moving people back onto this switch and so far no fires or failures.

Rather boringly though I’m going to get a replacement one as an emergency order instead of leaving the Frankenswitch as my legacy in Opuwo.

Repaired switch on top of rack and working

All plugged in and sitting on top of rack fans for cooling and extra oxygen for inevitable fire (backup switch seen in the background)

Switch working in extended testing

Switch actually working with the first test group of people back on it


A NIDing I Will Go

June 13, 2011

It’s that time again; the National Immunuisation Days are upon us. The yearly NID programme consists of two rounds (cryptically called NID 1 and NID 2) where the Ministry of Health dispatches just about everyone into the field to find children and make them cry (also make them safer).

This will be my third NID (not counting the emergency Measles immunisation drives) and sadly also my last.

It’s a great opportunity to get out into da bush, meet new and interesting people, camp out under the stars like a real man, do good works ™ and as an added bonus make children cry.

Unfortunately for NID 1 I’m tied to Opuwo and so will just be going out on a daily basis then returning at night (or not returning because I’m stuck in mud/water/quicksand/on rocks). Though this has the added bonus of sleeping in my bed every night it lacks the tough real manliness and camaraderie of camping out in the middle of nowhere.

I’m tied to Opuwo thanks to one thing; the naughty modem.

In April we had a lightning-caused power surge on the Telecom network in Opuwo. It took out my ADSL router, my laptop and also the work baseband modem used to connect one of our networks to head office in Windhoek.

This left nobody able to connect to the central finance, HR or intranet systems and rather than being seen as a bonus holiday was met with consternation.

Getting a new modem would take over a week but luckily Telecom had a spare second-hand one in Opuwo and was able to bring it over the next morning and after a little setting-wrangling, prayer and repeated reboots we were back online.

All was well.

But since then and with increasing frequency a red light keeps coming up on the new modem and the connection is lost.

I could bore you with details of what this light may mean or the tests I’ve performed on the line and so on in a veiled and pathetic attempt to look like I might know what I’m talking about but I’ll spare you that (this once).

Suffice to say that on a regular basis the connection to head office is lost. People will then come and see me, usually I’m already in the room with it in cursing, and ask what the problem is (no doubt assuming I’ve broken something).

Usually turning it off and back on will solve the problem (as with 94.8721% of all IT problems) but sometimes, like today, it doesn’t and I’m left trying to find someone on the phone at Telecom or our WAN company who can turn their end off and back on.

I’ve previously pointed to the modem and said ‘it may be faulty’ or explained that the line is down and I’m trying to find out which bit is broken. Mostly this was met with blank stares. Until I pointed generally at the equipment and told someone ‘it is very naughty’ at which their eyes lit up and understanding was reached. So this has now become my formal description of the problem.

“Status report Mister David?”

“It continues to be naughty Meme”

I have now managed to open a fault with Telecom for the ongoing problem (previously they would open a fault when the line was down, when I reset the modem and it was back up the fault would be closed) so I have high (no doubt foolish) hopes we can get it sorted allowing me to get out deep into da bush for NID 2.

Here’s a picture of the GRN network rack. The naughty modem is the white box in the middle:

Rack Open Showing Naughty Baseband Modem

And here it is in close-up with some detailed technical information:

Naughty Baseband Modem Close

See – I know all about the flashy lights and what about those arrows done in MS Paint? Truly I am l33t to the max.

Dan’s Computer Services

May 16, 2011

Following an incident the other night and a call out of Dave’s Network Diagnostic Team once again to visit Dan’s Computer Services we would like to clarify the following:

There is no truth to the rumour that Dan damaged the cable when running it.

Further it is untrue that any power-based interference was causing a problem on the line.

Both RJ-45 connections were firmly attached and all 8 of the cables were seated well at both ends.

In fact the only problem found was the small, almost insignificant, matter of one of the ends being put on upside down.

I should like to take this opportunity to say the I have complete confidence in Dan’s Computer Services and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Accusations involving “schoolboy errors” are misinformed, unhelpful and frankly insulting.

With a Flash and a Bang

April 13, 2011

Finally; an electrical explosion that’s not my fault.

During a thunderstorm the other day a flash of lightning also caused a massive blue fireball to jump out of my ADSL router frightening the bejesus out of Mr Cat who was snoozing nearby (of course I wasn’t scared, well, maybe a bit).

Investigating the various bits of ozone-smelling kit that had moments earlier been prized working components keeping me linked to facebook 24×7 I found that not only had the router died a death but also the power surge had blown up my laptop through the LAN cable.

Fiddlesticks was a word I should have used. I may have been a bit stronger in my expression.

The power surge blew up a  lot of stuff all over Opuwo. A friend of mine also lost his laptop and a lot of people are at the very least now lacking an ADSL modem.

At work our internet line was ok but our leased line connecting all of the actual critical stuff was out for the count.

I headed to the Opuwo Teleshop to find it besieged by angry customers holding various bits of melted plastic and, as usual in Opuwo, we all spent the time chatting away until getting seen.

It transpires that the contract says the equipment (though owned by them until the end-of-contract) is entirely the customer’s responsibility. Faced with the prospect of not being able to browse cats that look like Hitler in the evenings I was therefore forced to splash out on a new router.

Thankfully I was also able to borrow a work laptop. As I don’t have a PC in my office and being (apparently) the IT bod not having any sort of computer would put a bit of a spanner in the works.

The work line was a little more complex not being a straight ADSL link and it turned out that as with the routers our termination box had bitten the big one.

This left our HR and Finance departments twiddling their thumbs (well ok doing filing and the like but not able to pay or process anything) as I entered a three-way ballet with the line service provider, network connectivity provider and various unnamed offices in Windhoek.

As luck would have it though (and thanks to the special efforts of one of the local Telecom engineers) a second-hand STU was found and installed (avoiding the week or so lead-time for one to be sent by goat from Windhoek) which following a bit of jiggery-pokery worked. So having prepped everyone for a week or so of downtime I was able to wander around actually for once with good news that the system was back and everyone could do whatever it is they do (above my head).

Being British I have naturally written a strongly worded letter to Telecom head office bemoaning the lack of surge protection on their network and demanding at least eight cows in compensation. Naturally I assume this will serve no purpose at all.

So goodbye Mr HP laptop. You have served me well even with Vista on and in the harsh Opuwo environment. I salute you sir.

Not Just Me Then

March 4, 2011

Following from my post VSO IT Do It With Staples I am heartened to find this blog post from Ivo, a VSO volunteer in Zambia, using staples also for quality IT works.

You can see the differences between VSO Zambia and VSO Namibia when he refers to:

the VSO Approved Computer-Repair-Staple

In Namibia the paperclip remains the only fully-approved method of PC repair and staples are used entirely at your own risk.

Reading his blog though it’s sad to hear about some riots occuring close by (and about the evacuation of some VSOs in this post from Andrew).

Namibia borders Zambia along the Caprivi strip and I was there last year visiting Livingstone and Victoria Falls. Let’s hope it all calms down quickly.

My Spare Time

January 24, 2011

So I’m sure you’re just dying to know what it is I do with my spare time outside of work in the brief window when I’m not drunk, in the midst of a Mefloquine hallucination or watching crappy TV series.

Well I’ll tell you – writing crappy computer software. Go me. How cool? Oh, not very you say. Fair enough.

So what? Maybe I will die alone but that’s what I always wanted. Honest. Go away now.

Recent waste-of-typing projects include:

REX: Remote Execution Framework for PHP

Have PHP code you want to store and/or execute remotely? Ignorant of the security risks or just desperate to co-ordinate your DoS assaults on multiple hosts without much actual work?

Then REX may be for you.

A web server acts as a code store serving up REX files (basically PHP code with a few odds-and-ends). Your client then pulls down this code from the central store and executes it. Either manually or automatically.

To complete the cycle of remoteness you can also run a webserver on your client through which you can get it to download code from somewhere else, run it on itself and send you the output thanks to the wonders of the interwebz.

iArray: Associative Arrays for JavaScript

Tired of using old-skool index-based arrays in your funkilicious Web 2.442190001 applications?

Look no further than iArray. Providing much the same kind of interface as a normal JS array you can assign keys to your data elements and then reference them by key or by index.

Witchcraft? Yes, probably.

DOAP: Some Sort of RPC-style Wrapper for PHP/JavaScript

Tired of writing your own XMLHTTP/AJAX magic with the whole JavaScript and server-side components? Too lazy to even use one of the many frameworks which does most of it for you?

DOAP (Dave’s Own Access Protocol) is probably not the answer but you never know.

On the server: write a PHP function, include the DOAP Server library, Register that function and set the script to call the DOAP handler.

On the client: include the DOAP JS client, instantiate the object, call the function and… get the result straight back as a JavaScript primitive or array.

Voila et fini.

One Laptop per Child

January 22, 2011

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project has a mission to “create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop”.

OLPC was founded by Nicholas Negroponte a professor at MIT, big player in the world of IT and best-selling author.

They manufacture a ruggedised laptop called the XO which runs a Linux-based custom open source operating system and user interface (called Sugar). The laptop itself is quite striking with the “rabbit ears” WiFi aerials and has gone through a number of revisions.

While I was in Caprivi last easter on loan to the Ministry of Education it turned out one of the schools had a whole bunch of XO laptops that had been organised by previous American volunteers at the school.

Unfortunately for a variety of reasons these weren’t being utilised. Sensing an opportunity to get some IT work going at the school (and of course to get my hands on some cool kit) we went down and visited the school which is near the Zambezi river close to the Botswana border.

After an initial visit and discussion with the principal we took some XOs back to Katima Mulilo to play with familiarise ourselves with and see how they could best be used in the school.

OLPC XO Laptops Charging for a Lesson

A stack of OLPC XO laptops charging for a lesson in Caprivi

The XO hardware is excellent. Well designed (once you figure out how to open it, a source of great amusement for some as the supposed “IT expert” [their words not mine] struggled to find a catch), durable and with a very low power footprint.

OLPC XO Laptops in use in Caprivi, Namibia

Kids Absorbed by Using the XO in an Example Lesson

I do have one or two criticisms which I’ll go into later but first off let me say I think the project is a brilliant idea. As a way to bridging the digital divide and providing future generations with key IT skills there is simply no substitute to allowing hands-on experience. OLPC provides a cost-effective, sustainable and highly effective way of doing this.

Even with a few reservations I think providing XO laptops is a far better option than rooms full of virus infested and over complex for the need Windows based PCs not to mention the ongoing management of such a system. They are a much better option than centrally managed thin clients (regardless of the OS) and of course infinitely better than nothing at all.

Very quickly I had them up and running at my friend’s house, using the interface is very easy and allows you simple access suitable for young children as well as more complex access (up to a shell interface suitable for big children like myself).

The bundled software is superb and this was just the pre-loaded stuff. Time and internet access didn’t allow me to fully explore the massive range of software packages available online for download and install.

As well as the normal things you would expect like a word-processor and calculator there was even software to use the inbuilt microphone (or I believe add-on sensors) as an osciliscope. Lots of other packages allowed pictures to be taken, played with and manipulated; exactly the kind of “fun education” that lets people learn while thinking they’re just playing.

One Laptop per Child XO in an English Lesson in Namibia

XO Laptop Ready for Use in an English Lesson

In the end we went back to the school. I spent quite some time with the IT teacher showing how the XO can be used to fulfil the curriculum requirements. Vivien (my VSO colleague and sponsor of my visit) then taught an example English lesson to a class demonstrating their use beyond just IT classes. We also held a lesson in the afternoon for the teachers to see how easily they could be utilised.

OLPC XO Laptops in Use for an English lesson in Namibia

XO Laptops Used in an Example English Lesson

Now onto the points which I feel (in my humble and worthless opinion) could be improved or refined. Note that we were using old versions of the XO, the originally installed (and out of date) operating system and without additional downloaded packages any/all of which may address some of these concerns.

The Vision: One Laptop per Child

Given that the vision is for each child to have their own individual laptop it may be going against the grain for me to say I’m not sure this is the best solution. The idea is that schools receive and give out laptops to individual children who then keep them, using them in lessons and taking them home.

I can see how if this worked totally it would be for the best and also how it could sound good when presented as a project plan in the US.

The reality is this approach suffers from a few drawbacks.

In the school I have experience of there weren’t enough XO laptops for every child, not by a long shot. There were just about enough for one year. Unless they are universally provided then it means some children have lots of access and others none.

By taking them out of the “computer lab” environment it’s hoped that the children with XOs would use them in every lesson, do their homework on them and even use them at home. Where XOs are not universally available to all this would call for teachers to offer two types of lesson, one based on the laptops and another with pen and paper.

Wear and tear are drastically increased by having them ported around and taken home by the kids. A computer lab suffers from enough damage in a static and theoretically supervised environment (trust me; I remember from school and I have friends who work in schools).

Then of course there is what I like to call the thieving elephant in the room. Realistically you have to accept that no matter how cheap the XO once kids take them home it may become the most expensive (and flashy) thing in the village. At the school we were working at this was a major problem with two being lost on the first night (hence the recall and lack of use since).

Would I like to see kids all with their own laptops? Going home being able to work on their homework, even surf the net through a “mesh network” and perhaps for their parents to gain knowledge through the software and data included? Of course I would.

Given the problems mentioned, specifically the lack of universality would I rather see a school years’ worth of XOs deployed within the school and regularly used by all the children in a supervised, safe and supported environment? Yes I would.

But the XO software (aside from the contractual requirements for them to be distributed which I believe exist) makes this hard with the entire system built upon a single user and single data store.

For the cost of one lab of buggy and problematic thick-client PCs you could equip four or even five classrooms with XOs giving the opportunity to use IT not to one class at a time, or one year for all time but for five classes throughout the entire school all the time.

File Storage

The designers of the XO and interface decided not to have a “traditional” file system but rather use a journal-based approach. Instead of saving files with a name in a hierarchial (fancy name for in folders) store all work is saved all the time and you access a central log of all your activities and then re-open ones at will.

This is meant to be more conducive to a “learning environment” and allow users to access their work in the order they created it.

I am absolutely sure this was done in consultation with education experts and for the best of reasons. Just as sure as I am that it’s not the right way to go.

Personally I found the journal system hard to use and in a relatively short time was struggling to find the right example files I was working on. This may well be just me failing to embrace change and bringing my old school concepts to bear too rigidly. But that is besides the point.

Like it or loathe it all modern computer systems use hierarchical file storage. Whether you’re using Windows, Mac OS, Linux or Solaris (or even a “cloud based” file store like google docs) the basic premise of files organised by structure is there. Someone who has learned to save and load files from the My Documents folder on Vista won’t actually have trouble doing the same from ~/Documents on Fedora.

There is a reason for this standardisation. It works. Organising information by category and in order is what we humans do, the computerised filesystem is just a modernised version of filing cabinets and ring binders.

Further being the accepted standard means that once beyond the education world of XOs ex-children who are now adults will be faced with such a filesystem and those that cut their teeth on Windows will sadly have an advantage over those using Sugar. “What do you mean save it?”.

Of course the standard is not without fault. It’s easy to end up in just such a mess if not more of one using hierarchical storage than a journal system. But there is nothing to stop an interface offering the option to view stored files in date-order or even to provide the ability to tag documents with keywords separate to their storage location.

To my mind providing at least the option of using a more traditional approach to file management teaches key skills for later life, makes it easier for stick-in-the-mud users like me to transition to the XO and doesn’t have to do away with the concept of a “learning journal” at all.

The word processor uses the standard approach with highlighting and a toolbar for changes, exactly the same concept as used by Word, Open Office, Impression or Google Docs. Why can’t the file access?


One of the big features of the XO is its wireless networking and specifically the ability to create “mesh” networks. These are sort of Ad-Hoc Wifi networks allowing users within range to collaborate on work, share files or chat. You can also access systems “through the mesh” in a kind of peer-to-peer way, you are in range of Bob and he is in range of Ed therefore you can talk to Ed (as long as Bob doesn’t wander off or switch off).

This is a great idea and facilitates easy sharing and exchange of information in the classroom. The visualisation and setup tools are also superb; powerful yet easy.

The problem I found is that it often doesn’t work. Being a simplified interface it was also hard to see why (though if I had time I’m sure I could delve into the depths of the console and dig out some diagnostics). When it did work sharing work was great fun and potentially a very useful tool. When it didn’t it was just frustrating.

Also again here the vision crops up. The mesh networks are designed on an “all are equal” basis. In fact in a classroom environment what you want to see is an easy way to have one XO (say the teachers) publish information, tasks or documents to all the other computers (an “all are equal but some are more equal than others” basis). This may be possible but in the time we had there was nothing obvious.

There is the option to have a server which can be used to manage/update/backup the XOs but on a per-classroom basis it’s not feasible. What I would like to see is a solution whereby the teacher can setup the work, setup a network with some sort of code (to avoid confusion from neighbouring rooms) and then let the children all access it maybe with the option to have their work automatically saved onto the teachers laptop as well for easy marking.

I also think some sort of remote control/remote management on a peer-to-peer basis would be an excellent idea and give teachers the ability to help and support their class on a per-user or per-classroom basis.

Small Issues

In the grand scheme of the project these are small issues.

OLPC is a great project which is already having significant, real and ongoing benefits to some of the most disadvantaged children the world over. In turn this will lead to a more skilled workforce in the emerging world, stronger economies and all the benefits and stability that brings.

In an increasingly technical age access to (and the ability to use) IT and the knowledge, efficiencies and communication advantages it can bring are essential. At least until the end-of-days in 2012 anyway.

OLPC this Larium deranged IT volunteer salutes you!

One Laptop per Child XO Laptops in use in Namibia

Another Shot of the Example English Lesson Using XO Laptops

VSO IT Do It With Staples

January 20, 2011

Excellent though the approved computer-repair paperclip is what do you do when you’re in an office seemingly without paperclips trying to diagnose and ideally fix a non-powering PC?

Use a multimeter to check power, cables and the operation of switches? No. Use a staple.

The staple is almost as versatile as a paperclip and can be used for;

Fault Diagnosis – a medium staple is just the right size to “short start” an ATX PSU (once you’ve ensured AC power by listening for the crackle as you slowly push the power cord home). It can also be used in tight spaces to “jump start” (or not) a motherboard.

Repair – if you happen to find after staple diagnostics that the 20/24 pin motherboard power socket has a damaged post a quick modification can see the staple fitted as a replacement and happily passing current so all the other gubbins (the technical term for the whirry and/or flashy bits inside) start doing whatever it is they do.

Please note advice on the use of staples is for guidance only and paperclips remain the officially endorsed tool for use in bodge-it-yourself field IT repairs.

Opuwo Network Project

November 10, 2010

The one semi-regular reader of my blog may be forgiven for thinking there is a lot of stuff on here about travelling around, partying, the neverending problem of water and attending VSO things but little in the way of substance about work I’ve actually done.

Someone less generous than yourself dear reader may naively assume this is because my life consists purely of travelling, partying, meetings and moaning about water. You of course know the truth is I am constantly busy with all sorts of wonderful technical projects and programs as well as providing high quality training to all and sundry. On alternate Thursdays anyway.

So to address the blogpost work/life balance here is some information about the Great Network Project in Opuwo.

Non IT readers may wish to stop reading now and visit eBay instead. IT readers may also wish to stop reading now and go find some lolcats instead.

Background / Phase Zero

The previous VSO IT volunteer here at the Ministry had managed to get an ADSL broadband link provisioned from Namibia Telecom along with a D-Link wireless router, some wireless cards and some cabling kit (crimpers and RJ-45 ends).

He had installed about 5 PCs in WiFi range with the cards and all were surfing happily away on the internet. Unfortunately his placement (6 months) ended before any further work could be completed.

After he had left yet another brave VSO volunteer came up on loan from the Ministry of Education and suggested the purchase of some trunking and much more CAT5e cable which was duly purchased but was delivered long after he had gone from Opuwo.

So when I arrived I found the existing ADSL modem/router, wireless router and 5 clients working along with 4000 feet of CAT5 cable and lots of trunking. I call this situation Phase Zero (by reference to me anyway).

MoHSS Opuwo March 2009 Phase 0 Overview

Phase 0 Network - Wireless Access Only

Preparations for Project

Because I hate crimping cables and am no good at it I justified the purchasing of a RJ-45 patch panel, numerous sockets and a punch tool. This was my first experience of the mighty economising committee and ordering process but my kindly benefactors in the logistics office helped me through.

At some point (possibly post Phase 1 but who cares) I also stopped using double-NAT. The setup as I found it was ADSL modem/router (acting as a NAT router) plugged into the WAN port of the D-Link wireless router (also acting as a NAT router). This gave us two SPOFs and the D-Link didn’t seem to be too happy keeping routing going for a long time. So I switched DHCP off, configured it with an IP on the ADSL router’s internal range, plugged that into the LAN side and made it purely an access point.

Phase One: Making a Mess

Our network centre for the regional office (call it comms room, data center or our video conferencing room that happens to have a strong door as you will) is about 1/3 of the way along our main corridor (we have another side to the regional offices but more on that later).

The first phase therefore was to put up trunking along the 2/3 length of the corridor, mount the patch panel, drill cable access holes through walls and run the first cable.

I covered this a bit at the time in the post “network networked“.

Not to cover old ground too much (read the original post and see the pretty pictures) but we had a few issues such as there being a break-in the night before the work, the walls turning out to be worse than we could imagine (foot thick very solid concrete with seemingly more lintels than plain wall) and my general uselessness at anything practical. Luckily Segube (the hero of the entire project) worked around me and we got it done.

At the end of a day of actual work we’d managed to run trunking down the long end of the corridor, run a solitary cable and cover everything in sight in concrete dust and plastic shavings. The cleaners were very impressed with me on monday. So much so they made a special effigy of me and stuck pins in it, no doubt some sort of local custom to show praise.

Phase Two: Networking People Other Than Me

In Phase Two we mainly concentrated on using the trunking and holes in the walls to run cables to identified “key” offices along the RMT long corridor.

This made us very popular with some people (those who got internet access) and very unpopular with those offices not identified as “key” that we just worked on past. Not my choice as to who is what though.

Phases Three and Four: More Mess, More Cables

Three and Four were expansionist phases involving trunking being installed the other way on the corridor and then to the outside, up and over our entrance archway and a toilet block then into the finance corridor.

Not only did this give us a continuous cable route to the false ceiling in the finance block but once again created plenty of mess to keep the cleaners happy. As part of one of these phases a Linux server (watson) was commissioned and put into our comms room to provide DNS services for the network (telecom’s DNS servers being a bit flaky) as well as a central file share.

Phase Five: The Big One

By now we actually had a network sort of taking shape but there was also contact from National Level people wanting to connect us to the National Government Network allowing use of centralised finance and HR systems from our offices.

Following a preliminary visit some plans were drawn up for offices to cable, computers to be installed and locations for a rack. We hoped to keep our internet link and separate the traffic with a routing rule but this turned out to be against policy so in the end we split our network into two.

The plan for phase 5 was to accomplish the following:

  • Put in proper routing and proxy to our internet-connected LAN via the watson server
  • Cable all remaining “key” regional offices
  • Install WAN link to Windhoek for government network
  • Install Fibre link the length of the hospital to Opuwo District offices
  • Cable some offices at Opuwo District
  • Install half-height rack in Regional Offices
  • Install 4U wall mount rack in District Offices
  • Cable all HR officer desks and install thin clients
  • Install second server on internet-connected network for WiFi access, DNS and SMB/CIFS (cavell)
  • Install and configure numerous new PCs and printers for various functions

Because, naturally and sensibly, I am not trusted with fibre optic cables and their associated frikkin’ lazer beams the national level bods arranged for some cabling contractors to come in to do the fibre link and one or two of the offices.

When the IT team arrived there was a comedy of errors (well I would have laughed if I wasn’t too busy crying) when we couldn’t find any keys for the room, they had turned up a day earlier than expected so not all the cabling was finished and it turned out they wanted some different offices done than originally specified. Fun.

So we worked tirelessly for a few days just ahead of the technical team putting in the cabling just-in-time for them to install and start configuring the PCs.

In the end it all worked out ok though and all the systems were commissioned correctly. The LAN move to a proper router configuration and secondary server for DNS and WiFi went fine as well.

MoHSS Opuwo Phase V Twin Network Overview

Post Phase Five: Twin Networks at Opuwo

Network Networked

July 13, 2009

After four months of plonkering, procastinating, ordering of kit, scawling of diagrams and a couple of false starts I finally managed to start the wired networking project this weekend.

My predecessor had put in a wireless LAN connecting about five computers but, owing to the thickness of the walls and lack of money for more access points this was never going to reach everywhere. This is where cables come into play.

He had managed to get 300m of CAT5 network cable ordered along with 50 RJ-45 end pieces. Another VSO vol who stopped by managed to get them to order another 300m of cable and some trunking (the stuff that the cables go inside).

When I arrived this was all in-place. I then managed to get a 24-port patch panel, 24 RJ-45 wall sockets, 24 3m and 24 1m cables ordered along with the Krone punch tool needed to put it all together.

For non-technical readers this is everything I need to connect all the ‘puters together to each other and the internet in a “nice” (think telecom e.g. sockets on the walls) type of way.

On Saturday I turned up at 9am to find the office had been broken into on Friday night and we were waiting for the police to come and gather evidence. Under no circumstances was I to go inside the office (this came in a phone call once I was already inside the office of course). After waiting for them to do their CSI bit the artisan helping with the cabling had to reinforce the door.

Eventually around 11am we got started on putting up the trunking. It turns out drilling into concrete is hard, hot and dusty work.

By 4pm we had the trunking all done in one direction on one side of the corridor (90% of the target for that day). We then spent the next hour running a solitary CAT5 cable to the furthest point to be used for testing purposes (just so happens that furthest point is my office).

By then it was almost 5 and I was knackered so decided to put off splicing cables as I would no doubt make a schoolboy error. We tidied up as best we could but the place still looked like a dustpocolypse had occured. I planned to blame it on the break in.

This morning (Monday) I got in early to apologise to the cleaners and splice cable number one (port A1) in – my office. Did this, connected the distribution switch and then plugged my laptop into the far end with sweaty hands.

Bingo! LAN and Internet connectivity is go.

Making a mess in the corridor installing trunking

Making a mess in the corridor installing trunking

Subtle expert trunking

Subtle expert trunking

19" rack patch panel you say? No rack you say? Wall mount with a piece of wood!

19" rack patch panel you say? No rack you say? Wall mount with a piece of wood!

Racks? Who needs them when you have a counter

Racks? Who needs them when you have a counter

Link Number One, to my desk natch

Link Number One, to my desk natch

The cabling actually works (shock, horror)

The cabling actually works (shock, horror)

The end result - t'internet at my desk

The end result - t'internet at my desk