Category Archives: Cool software

Basically, a (normally) free application that I have bumped into that solves a tricky problem or that I think is best in it’s field.

get_iPlayer: Important July 2015 Update

get_iPlayer downloads BBC iPlayer TV and Radio programmes – so that you can retain and view them for posterity.

As time ever marches on,  stuff changes and my original article on get_iPlayer could really do with a major update – and, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll get round to it one day – so if you are coming to get_iPlayer for the first time please do this:

1. Read the original article that explains how to install and use get_iPlayer, but PLEASE DON’T install it from the links on that page.

2. Install the latest version of get_iPlayer from here – and catch up with the forum and discussions etc. The Square Penguin folk have done a really great job and are to be applauded.

3. Read this article for those who are having trouble recording and/or finding programmes in the iPlayer feeds.

Enjoy,
Woody.

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Nov 2014 Update: For those having trouble with get_iplayer


July 2015 Update: Please read this article FIRST.

For those trying (and failing) to download radio programmes via get_iplayer, Peter has very kindly responded with a solution here.


 

This is a very swift blog entry (and an experiment in blogging direct from OneNote…) for those folk who are having trouble with get-iplayer (see my original article)

Starting 30th Oct 2014, the BBC removed the previous way they published iPlayer RSS and Feeds to make way for a new API called Nitro – and it has broken a lot of third party apps (including the iPlayer plugin for XBMC). This has naturally caused a LOT of upset.

The good news, is that the folk over at Square Penguin seem to have managed a workaround and have now released an update: V2.90

If the V2.90 update doesn’t work for you, try this:

Presume that you want to record “Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century:

Copy (CTRL-C) the iplayer programme URL (ringed in red) which is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b041m4rl/rule-britannia-music-mischief-and-morals-in-the-18th-century-episode-3

Paste (CTRL-V) the URL into the Quick URL box in get_iplayer PVR and then hit Record

Once the download is complete, RIGHT CLICK on the file in Windows Explorer and select Properties (should be right at the bottom of the drop-down box that appears).

Click on the Details tab and click in the title box to edit it to be the name of the downloaded programme. This will enable it to show up with the correct name in whichever video player you use.

Microsoft Windows Server 2012 R2 Storage Spaces: RAID is dead – here comes Smart Data Ubiquity

“…nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and hard drive failure Benjamin Franklin, 1789.

Call me old fashioned, but I tend to still think that the folk who know the capabilities of any product best (and how long it will last), are the people who manufacture them. So as an exercise for the reader:

Why do you think that most Hard Drive Manufacturers provide only 1 year warranties with their drives?


The Problem

With this in mind, I started to investigate the current data retention technologies available for increasing the storage in my HP ProLiant MicroServer (you know, the one everyone bought after HP did a cash back deal – because it seemed like a cheap and good idea at the time).

I wanted to build a resilient repository for family photos and and the like – the sort of stuff that is spilling out of USB drives, memory sticks and getting deleted from digital cameras when they run out of space.

I would like to say that I did the investigation bit first, but having leapt at an offer for two 3TB Toshiba DT01ACA300 drives – I ended up scratching my head as to precisely what to do with them when they arrived …

Given the certainty that both of these drives will fail at some point in the future – at least, before I am no longer capable of operating a computer, I figured that unless there was some common and interrupting event, like a plane falling on the house or a massive power surge – at least these drives are unlikely to both fail at the same time. Therefore if each drive was a duplicate of the other, I reckoned that I had a pretty good chance of maintaining a resilient data storage environment in which I could swap out drives when they failed.

The Woody Plan

My plan, was to use the RAID controller in the HP micro server to do RAID 1 mirroring – i.e. each disk would be a mirror of the other, with files being written (and read) from both disks. However, once I had sat down and thought about it, I realised that it was quite an inelegant approach and not very cost effective. For although I would continue to have a complete copy of the data if one disk failed, that data would be a mixture of stuff which could effectively have different retention policies – not all of which, needed the same level of resilience.

For simplicity, let’s say that I have just two data retention types (although you could have significantly more in your world):

1.  Family photos and the like – which need to be retained for the sake of marital harmony..

2. Music MP3’s (rips of CD’s that I own and can be re-ripped), iPlayer downloads, Mrs W’s PDF’s of Next catalogues …etc, etc. This is stuff, which while I am in no hurry to lose, can be recreated and doesn’t need to sit on a high cost storage array.

Note how, with my proposed two disk mirrored array, I have to provide 6TB of drive space to deliver only 3TB of storage – and a lot of that storage will actually be used up by data that I don’t care if it is lost (like the Next Catalogues).

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I guess that you began to read this article in the traditional way by starting at the title … so it will come as no surprise to you that as a result of my research for my own storage options, I became intrigued by the capabilities presented by a technology called Storage Spaces – that is built into the newly released R2 version of Windows Server 2012 (there was a version of Storage Spaces in R1 – but R2 adds some significant additional features).

This is not just for large enterprises

While Windows Server 2012 is generally held to be the preserve of large enterprises, now with the launch of the R2 release, entry level can be gained via the Foundation edition (up to 15 users running on single processor servers) which will only be available OEM pre-installed on new servers (like the HP Micro Server) for an uplift – which current manufacturers retail pricing is indicating to be around £160/$260. OK, so it’s an additional cost, but you have to buy an operating system to put on your new micro server in any case – right?

Of course, there are other versions of Windows Server 2012 R2 (see references at the end) which contain the same Storage Spaces technology and there are products that can simulate some of the capabilities of Storage Spaces in Windows 7 and 8.1 (which I will cover in a later article).

…And just to cover something else off – for those who are wondering why I appear to be endorsing an en-premise approach to storage management in the era of the cloud: There continue to be many IT Managers for whom the provision of en-premise centralised backup, file and print management is still a key service.

Smart Data Ubiquity (SDU) – what is that?

SDU in Windows Server 2012 R2, is the result of a complete paradigm shift in the way we think of provisioning storage:

Imagine building a server which, for simplicity, contains just a bunch of disks (JBOD) [although the technology works just as well with NAS, Fibre attached, clustered bare metal or virtual servers] which can be a mixture of sizes and technologies – traditional platter and SSD’s].

A number of these disks are then effectively ring-fenced as a Storage Pool (there can be multiple Storage Pools).

Virtual drives – called Storage Spaces – are then defined and mounted as if  they are physical drives.

Each Storage Space automatically configures using (but not reserving – as we’ll see later) available space from any of the physical drives in the Storage Pool:

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Data written to each Storage Space is then striped across the drives in the storage pool in 256K blocks (block size is adjustable – for optimising block write to match the block size of a tenant application for which you have reserved a dedicated Storage Space).

The Data bit

There are three types of Storage Space, two of which are resilient by design:

Simple: Data is simply striped across drives in the storage pool. No parity bit is stored, neither is the data mirrored or otherwise duplicated. This type is best suited for ephemeral data – that which no longer needs to exist after an application has closed or for elastic compute environments etc. Don’t back up your photos on this one …but actually, as we’ll see later, a Simple Storage Space is more resilient than a stand-alone drive in situations where disk degradation occurs (but it won’t protect against sudden/catastrophic disk failure).

Parity: Data and associated parity bits are striped across physical disks in the storage pool, but it does need at least 3 physical drives to protect you from one physical disk failure and 7 drives to protect from 2 disk failures etc. So I guess you get better protection from catastrophic disk failure at the cost of reduced usable disk space overall.

Mirror: Data is striped in duplicate data blocks across different physical disks in the storage pool. Again, while you suffer some reduction in overall capacity, it takes 3 physical drives to protect you from one physical disk failure and only 5 drives to protect from 2 disk failures etc. In addition, Mirror Storage Spaces support three way mirroring (a copy of a copy of a copy – for the truly paranoid) – so I am guessing that when building large Storage Spaces, Mirroring might be the most popular approach, as data from a lost physical drive can simply be block copied from it’s mirror – rather than being recreated from it’s parity data – which can be potentially more processor and Bus intensive.

The Smart bit

Storage Spaces also have additional inherent capabilities:

Thin Provisioning: This one is a bit mind bending, but it is the ability to provision a Storage Space at a size that if all Storage Spaces were filled to capacity, the sum of the total capacity of all Storage Spaces would be larger than the total capacity of physical disk space in the the Storage pool. As an example, if the total physical capacity of all the drives in the pool was 10TB, you could provision 15TB’s (the sky’s the limit) of total Storage Space capacity as long as the actual consumption of space in all the Storage Spaces never exceeded 10TB (you would get an error and a lot of phones ringing if it did …).

Most traditional storage systems run significantly under capacity – as disk partitions generally tend to be specified for the maximum amount of data that users and applications are going to throw at them (plus, say, 20% – if you want to keep your job when something goes wrong). Even if you say that any partition runs, on average, at 70% utilisation – this means, that at any moment in time, there is a lot of disk space sitting idle.

With thin provisioning, you can effectively size Storage Spaces to the same capacity as a traditional sizing model, but on average, with Storage Spaces transient data cycling between max and min consumption, it means that more users/apps can inhabit the same physical drive space. Oh, and the best bit – if you start to run out of space, just bung another drive into the pool!

Storage Tiers: As you initially provision or add drives to the Storage Pool, you must specify the tier of each drive that is added. Currently there are two tiers:

– SSD’s

– HD’s

Over time, as data is written and read from a Storage Space, it is identified as high or low frequency accessed data. High frequency or “hot” data will automatically and dynamically be moved to the SSD’s in the storage pool and vice versa, with the lowest frequency accessed data being moved to HD’s.

Write cache: (AKA Write-back cache): Each Storage Space, as long as it contains a physical number of SSD’s appropriate to its type (Simple, Parity or Mirror) is automatically provisioned with a 1GB write cache. This allows the initial buffering of either the types of random writes common in enterprise applications or high density streaming writes. Data is then background striped across the Storage Space – smoothing jitter caused by data write bottlenecks.

The ubiquitous bit

This, to me, is the most exciting and coolest resilience bit – which kind of ties it all together:

Storage Pools (of physical disks) automatically self heal. If a drive is detected as failing or otherwise degrading, it’s data will automatically be moved to free space on the other physical drives in the Storage Pool.

Storage Pools can also contain a pre-designated Hot Spare Drive which a Storage Space will then use first for healing – in preference to free space on the other drives.

Similarly, additional physical drives can be added to a Storage Pool at any time and the Storage Spaces will rebalance.

There’s more ….

This is but a taster to start you out on the Windows Server 2012 R2 SDU journey.

There is so much more – that I have left out for simplicity – like how you configure and provision Storage Spaces with the Server console or PowerShell commandlets. How you manage TRIM and Defrag and the time and frequency of high frequency data being optimised to SSD and how you manage fail over clustering and multitenancy etc.

Continue the Smart Data Ubiquity journey here:

http://social.technet.microsoft.com/wiki/contents/articles/15198.storage-spaces-overview.aspx

http://social.technet.microsoft.com/wiki/contents/articles/11382.storage-spaces-frequently-asked-questions-faq.aspx

http://social.technet.microsoft.com/wiki/contents/articles/15200.storage-spaces-designing-for-performance.aspx

http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/products/windows-server-2012-r2/default.aspx#fbid=b1js9HiS4GV

© Woody – October 2013

[This article is original work – over which I own and retain copyright. However, it is based on multiple Microsoft documentary sources placed in the public domain and I acknowledge and thank Microsoft for that. You are welcome to use and otherwise republish this article as you will – but I just request that you continue to attribute me as the original author. Thanks.]

Malware Hunting and Windows Troubleshooting with Mark Russinovich and Microsoft Sysinternals tools

Mark Russinovich is a Microsoft teWindows Sysinternalschnical fellow, who a few of my, ahem, more mature readership will remember from his Winternals Windows tools company – which turned into Windows Sysinternals when Microsoft bought his company and hired Mark.

Mark is a an easy to follow and very engaging presenter who delivered two great sessions at TechED 2013 US:

Case of the Unexplained 2013: Windows Troubleshooting with Mark Russinovich

In which Mark walks you “step-by-step through how he has solved seemingly unsolvable system and application problems on Windows.

With all new real case studies, Mark shows how to apply the Microsoft Debugging Tools and his own Sysinternals tools, including Process Explorer, Process Monitor, to solve system crashes, process hangs, security vulnerabilities, DLL conflicts, permissions problems, registry misconfiguration, network hangs, and file system issues.

License to Kill: Malware Hunting with the Sysinternals Tools

Mark delivers “an overview of several Sysinternals tools, including Process Monitor, Process Explorer, and Autoruns, focusing on the features useful for malware analysis and removal.

These utilities enable deep inspection and control of processes, file system and registry activity, and autostart execution points. You will see demos for their malware-hunting capabilities through several real-world cases that used the tools to identify and clean malware, and conclude by performing a live analysis of a Stuxnet infection’s system impact.

—–

If you want to increase your skills at troubleshooting Windows issues or you are currently fighting a virus/malware infection (or not even sure if you have a malware or virus infection) then these videos are very good use of your time – and of course, the whole plethora of Windows Sysinternals tools are well worth evaluating.

Note: These videos are available for download – you don’t have to only watch them streaming. No need for get_iplayer and therefore Microsoft 1, BBC Nil…

Microsoft Security Essentials – Free Anti-Virus software that just works

Don’t kid yourself – we all need anti-virus software – and it would really help if it was free. Right?

In fact, I tend not to be too bothered about the “free” bit. What is important to me, is to simply get the best product for the job – and if it is free, that helps. 🙂

So why would you want this?

Well, trust me – everyone needs anti-virus software in order to protect your PC from the cretins out there and if you don’t think you need it – then good luck, you are on your own …..

I tend to find that most people ask me what Anti-Virus software to use when their existing licence runs out. You know how it is. You buy a new PC. It comes pre-loaded with Norton, AVG, Kaspersky or whatever – but the licence only lasts so long before it runs out and it is nagging you for money – and that’s reasonable, because these folks do a great job, but they can’t afford to do it for free.

So, how come that Microsoft can give this away for free – and is it any good?

Yes.

spyware protection

Microsoft Security Essentials is really the consumer version of the anti-virus software that they sell to Enterprise clients – so once it is written, and paid for by commercial users, Microsoft might as well spread the love (which they do quite a lot – despite what Apple fans may have you believe).

So, it is free and has a good pedigree – but is it any good?

Yes.

It is as good as all the other products out there – for one simple reason that not a lot of people know about:

Microsoft have a huge security division who work with security services that you have heard of and probably some that you haven’t and telemetry collected from their products distributed all over the world. Each time Microsoft collects evidence of a new virus, they update their antivirus software to detect that new virus AND put that virus and detection info in a large database that Microsoft share with the world by giving free access to all the major anti-virus vendors like, yes, you guessed it, Norton, AVG, Kaspersky etc. This is called the Microsoft Active Protections Program and you can read all about it by clicking the link.

So, this Microsoft Security Essentials is free and works as well as other anti-virus products out there – anything else I should know?

Yes.

The reason that I like it, is that it is “fire and forget”. That is, once you install it, it doesn’t do nagging pop-up messages that it needs to be updated or “why not buy the pro version” blah, blah, blah …. Microsoft Security Essentials just gets on with the job and updates its virus info at least once a day (as far as I can tell). That is why I find it really great for installing on the PC’s of folk that treat you like their own personal IT support team. You know who I am talking about – your Mum, your Dad, Aunties, Uncles and old uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Imagine a world where they don’t ring you up to ask what this funny pop up message asking about a “pro subscription” is all about…. trust me, Microsoft Security Essentials is your friend.

Mount .iso (CD/DVD) images in Windows 7 (or Vista and XP)

The great thing about Windows 7 is that it has a file hook for .iso files. Right click on them – and Windows 7 will offer to write that .iso as a DVD or CD. The one problem is, that it can’t natively mount .iso files – so you can’t see what is in them or extract the contents (unless you write the file to a CD or DVD first).

There are free tools out there that can mount an ISO in Windows 7 – but I have either not been able to get them to work properly or I have seen suspicions in reports that some of them may contain spyware.

Slysoft have a free product called Virtual Clone Drive – which works great and doesn’t contain spyware but it installs some stuff as a service – and I am never sure of the impact of that sort of thing. They do have a really great logo though!

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So, step forward the Pismo File Mount Audit Package AKA Mount Control from Pismo. This is free, doesn’t install as a service and works a treat. Job done. This one is a real Woodygem®

Download Radio programmes from BBC iPlayer as MP3’s

Note: That this article is now deprecated. Please see the replacement article on get_iplayer and continue to comment at that new page.

Thanks,
Woody 4th July 2013

If, like me, you listen to a lot of BBC radio – and are frustrated that unlike iPlayer videos – which you can download for viewing later (on a PC, iPod, iPhone, Sony Walkman, Zune etc) there is no way to download BBC radio programmes from iPlayer. All you can do is listen to them within the iPlayer interface – but if you want to save them to a portable device for listening to later on the tube – forget it!

image There are some very complex kludges that you might try – but nothing as elegant as Radio Downloader by a guy called Matt Robinson.

This is an absolutely superb application which, iPlayer like, displays all possible Radio programmes that are available at iPlayer – by genre, alphabetic listing etc. Simply click the one you want, hit “Download” and Radio Downloader downloads the programme as an MP3 – ready for you to write to your favourite portable media device.

This one is such an incredible gem – and if you have found this article because you have been searching for a solution to the iPlayer radio problem – you will really, really appreciate it. So please, show your appreciation to Matt Robinson by donating him a couple of quid.

mce-media-core – the best iplayer add-on for Windows Media Centre (MCE).

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The really cool thing about Windows Media Centre (to be found already installed in most versions of Vista and Windows) is that it is a central repository of all, well, your media. The problem is, that if you like using the BBC iPlayer, you effectively have to minimise the MCE interface and fire up a browser in which to watch iPlayer re-runs. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get iPlayer to run within MCE? Well, now you can.

While there has always been the Milliesoft MCE iPlayer add-on, I could never get it to work properly – and it was pretty resource hungry on my low power MCE (which also has a low bandwidth broadband connection).

So, step forward the gobsmakingly good mce-media-core. This really is an absolute gem – and probably the best add-on/plugin I have ever seen for MCE. What’s more, it doesn’t use Flash but wmv streams. As a consequence, you have to wait a minute or two for it to initially buffer, but once running, the video is broadcast quality – with no stuttering (like you can have with CPU intensive Flash rendering).

mce-media-core is still very much at the alpha phase, so some features don’t work (yet). I can’t get it to play BBC HD streams and there is no fast-forward or rewind – but I am sure that will be fixed as the product matures – unless Microsoft offers the author a job (and they really should).

"TheGodFather" – weird name for the best free software for organising MP3’s (and a lot more beside).

I bumped into TheGodFather because I had two specific requirements for which I could find no other free software that could satisfy. 

To illustrate, I have a home imagePC on which four different users have their own logins running iTunes for updating their iPods. iTunes is not bad for ripping CD’s to MP3’s (because you can configure it to automatically rip to a specified location AND eject the CD after ripping. So, to rip your music collection with iTunes, it’s just a matter of feeding it with CD’s.

This has resulted in MP3’s scattered all over the PC in personal folders etc,  a lot of which are duplicated because user A doesn’t know that user B has already ripped a CD. The result is multiple rips of the same CD and disk space disappearing at a rate of knots! In fact, running out of disk free space was what sent me in search of a tool to help.

TheGodFather was the only free tool that I found that could, all in one action:

  1. Find all the MP3’s on the PC and move them to a new location – automatically placing them in  image alphabetically ordered folders by name of artist and album etc (TheGodFather works this out from the ID3 tag).
  2. Remove duplicate MP3’s – by simply specifying that files can be overwritten by other identical files as TheGodFather locates and moves them.

Of course, TheGodFather does a shed load of other stuff imageas well – including automatically editing ID3 tags – or completing extra tag information from freedb.org etc.

Add Blog entries (offline) with Windows Live Writer

Well, if you can see this entry, then my copy of Windows Live Writer beta has worked!

image Windows Live Writer works with WordPress (the blogging system/server that this is written on) and allows you to create your blog entries off line and then publish them once you are re-connected. It means that I can now add entries about things that I have bumped into and got exceited about – as and when I discover them – rather than weeks later – or when I can no longer remember the details (I am not as young as I once was).