Recycling User Profiles

Just about everything in a Windows NT\2000\XP\Vista environment is assigned a unique “security identifier” (SID). Every user on a machine and every computer in a domain has a long string of numbers and letters that make a each account or machine unique. This is great for security – for example, it prevents someone from installing Windows Server 2003 on a laptop and creating a “ghost domain” with the same users as your work domain. Because the SIDs are different between your work’s real domain and the hacker’s ghost domain, the fake accounts cannot get into the CEO’s email account or sensitive network shares.

However, this has long been a problem for IT folks when it comes to changing network configurations. If a company’s workstations need to be moved from a workgroup to a domain, or from an old domain to a new one, or even if the old domain controller crashed and had to be replaced… all of these instances cause the computer’s SID to change. And any “new” accounts will get a new SID. So this means that when you convert John Doe’s computer from a workgroup to a domain, he will have a new domain account and SID… which means that he will get a new profile on his computer… which means that all of his documents, bookmarks, settings, Start Menu entries, email, wallpaper(s), browsing history, saved passwords, and even his desktop will be different.

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Hosting Multiple Sites using IIS

If you’re the “IT guy” at a small company, you’re sometimes asked to do things you’ve never done before. This usually involves setting up a new piece of hardware or software, configuring it, then leaving it alone. Every once in a while, however, you’ll come across a true noodle-scratcher… such as how to use one Windows server to host multiple web sites. At first glace, it might seem impossible. After all, most websites run on port 80, and you can only forward port 80 to one server on your network. So even if you wanted to host the sites on two different servers, you couldn’t with most SOHO routers. You could always run one of the sites on a different port, but then visitors that type http://www.companyname.com into their web browsers won’t know to add :8080 at the end of the address and so they won’t get your home page. Telling employees to always add :8080 to the intranet address isn’t much of a solution either, as non-technical folks won’t understand why they need to do this, and will call you up, angry as hell, since they can’t get to the company intranet.

So how do you host multiple sites with one address? By using host headers. All 3.0 and higher web browsers use the HTTP 1.1 protocol. In version 1.1 the requesting browser sends the hostname to the server during its initial request. In other words, the browser essentially says “hey 192.168.1.1… I’m 192.168.1.3 and I’m looking for companyname.com. Is that here? If so, send me the webpage.” Host headers take advantage of this protocol, and redirect each HTTP request to the appropriate site in your local IIS installation.

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DNS: Forward Lookup Zones

ISSUE: Your boss has tasked you with creating some new service (such as an instant messaging server), or perhaps management wants to move your company’s external website from third-party hosting to internal hosting. In either case, the service will be accessed by both internal and external users. Traditionally, this would require the use of two names: an internal one (“chatserver.internaldomain.local”) and an external one (“chatserver.externaldomain.tld”).

PROBLEM: Using two names creates confusion in two ways. First, your users might not be technically savvy enough to understand the difference between internal and external names. They might try accessing the chat server or website using the external name from inside the company or the internal name externally, either of which will result in failed connections. Secondly, your firewall or proxy server software might not handle internal->external->internal connections gracefully. If your internal users try to connect to your company’s external website, chances are that DNS will resolve to an external IP address; most firewall, proxy or NAT software that I’m familiar with don’t care for this type of setup at all, and problems may result from configuring your domain this way.

SOLUTION: Use a Forward Lookup Zone in your local DNS to resolve “external” IP addresses to local ones. This allows you to give your users a single address for the new chat or web server. And since anyone inside the company will use local DNS to resolve your external domain to local addresses, you can avoid any unpleasantness with your proxy\firewall software, since the packets will never hit the proxy in the first place.

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Archiving Files Efficiently

Have you ever needed to archive a bunch of files to CD or DVD and not cared about the order of the files, only archiving them as efficiently as possible?

Last weekend I finally decided to archive around 43GB worth of video files to DVD-R discs. In a perfect world, I would have been able to organize my files, keeping all of my episodes of The Office or My Name Is Earl together on the same disc. However, the real world just doesn’t work that way. I don’t have enough hard drive space to keep entire seasons of my favorite shows prior to burning, so the 43GB worth of files was a hodgepodge of five episodes of this and six episodes of that. And with video files being so large (175MB for a half-hour show to 700MB for a one-hour British show), it’s nearly impossible to keep them together on one disc. One season of a British show like Life On Mars is simply too big for one disc, and while five or six episodes of My Name Is Earl will easily fit on a CD-R, it’d be a waste of a DVD-R disc to burn 650MB to a 4700MB DVD. The best one can hope for if you try to figure out which files could be burned to which disc is a loose organization of your files; at worst, one gets a huge headache trying to figure it all out.

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Toaster for WinAMP!

There aren’t a lot of media players for Windows that can read album art embedded in an ID3 tag. Windows Media Player is one, but I’d rather pull my fingernails out with a pair of rusty pliers than use WMP for listening to music. WinAMP has several plug-ins that deal with album art, but many of them simply read the FOLDER.JPG file you keep in the same folder as the MP3s. I don’t organize my MP3s this way, but even if I did, it wouldn’t help me see the album art on my two portable players (an Archos AV-420 and TCPMP on Windows Smartphone)… both of those read the album art via tags in the files themselves, not a JPG in a folder. But then I found Toaster for WinAMP! It not only displays the album art, it uses a UI that looks just like Windows native messaging display to do so:

Is that cool lookin’ or what? Toaster not only displays the art based on ID3 tag *or* folder.jpg file, it can also display the information in MSN Messenger, so you can annoy your chatmates with what you’re listening to as well!

Download Toaster for WinAMP for free here.

Disabling “Open With… Web Service”

When you double-click on an unknown file type in a default installation of Windows XP, you are presented with two choices for what to do next: select a program from a list of programs installed on your PC *or* use the Microsoft Web Service to figure out which program will open the file. Since I’ve never known anyone, anywhere at any time to use the stupid “Web Service” lookup thingy, this makes Windows’ default behavior pretty annoying, as it adds an extra step in the file-opening process. Luckily, it’s really fast and easy to disable the Web Service prompt:

1) Click on Start > Run. Type regedit into the Run: box and click OK.

2) Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE > SOFTWARE > Microsoft > Windows > CurrentVersion > Policies > System.

3) Right-click in the right pane and select New > DWORD value.

4) Name the new DWORD value NoInternetOpenWith and set its value to 1.

5) Close Regedit. No reboot is necessary!

Microsoft Licensing In A Nutshell

One of the greatest mysteries in life isn’t if we go to heaven when we die or even if the light in the fridge goes out when you close the door… it’s the mystery of Microsoft licensing, something that’s confounded even the experts for years. I’ve fielded questions in this subject area for so long that one has to wonder why I haven’t added this to the “Geek Stuff” page before…

Most people know that when you buy a copy of Windows XP, you’re not really paying for the CD and the manual. You’re actually paying for a license to use the software. That license is sold in many different ways, and it can be incredibly complicated to makes heads or tails of the mess Microsoft has created with their licensing schemes. So let me break it down for you in plain English:

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Obscure Windows Shortcuts!

Ahhhhh… keyboard shortcuts, how I love thee! It’s almost always faster to use the keyboard to accomplish something than using a mouse. But while most people are familiar with basic shortcuts like CTRL+C (copy) and CTRL+V (paste), there’s an entire galaxy of lesser known ones out there that you could be using every day. Did you know about CTRL+X (cut)? How about CTRL+Z (undo)? How about CTRL+Y (redo)? Did you know that you can press F2 to rename a file? Well, even if you know all of those, I’m sure that there are a few in this list that you’ve never heard of:

Tab completion – In Windows XP, you can use the tab key as an “auto-complete” at a command-line. For example, you might have several folders in your Program Files directory with “Microsoft” in the name. To quickly change to one of those folders, you can type CD M and press the TAB key to cycle through all the folders that begin with an “M”. WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW: this also works in the “Run:” box as well. SOMETHING ELSE YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW: this feature is enabled by default in XP; you can enable it in Windows 2000 by opening RegEdit (click Start > Run > regedit > OK) and changing the value of HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\MICROSOFT\Command Processor\CompletionChar to 9.

Built-in Hotkeys – The Windows interface has a built-in hotkeys feature that few (if any) use, although it’s super-duper nifty. If you go to the shortcut properties of any desktop or Start Menu shortcut (right-click > properties > shortcut), you’ll see a box that says “shortcut key” between the boxes that say “Start In:” and “Run”. Simply type a keystroke combination (I use CTRL+SHIFT+O for Outlook and CTRL+SHIFT+F for Firefox) and save your changes. From now on, you can open the program using the keystroke combo you saved!

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Saving Multiple Attachments in Outlook

Saving a single email attachment is pretty easy: you just open the email, right-click on the attachment, select “Save”, pick a location for the file and then click OK. However, this process can be quite tedious when one has an entire folder full of attachments, which might happen if you’re part of an HR department that gets hundreds of résumés via email a day.

I ran into this problem myself just the other day – I subscribed to a new podcast using NewsGator, which integrates RSS feeds and podcasts into Outlook. Because I had never downloaded anything from this particular podcast site before, NewsGator downloaded all of the show’s previous episodes… so I suddenly had 20 emails in a folder, each with a 12-20MB MP3 attached to it. I just wasn’t in the mood to save them manually, so I went on the web to see if I could find help.

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Archiving Data

Twice in the past month people have asked me what the “best format” is for permanently archiving data that they want to keep forever, like family photos and tax records. Sadly, the short answer to that question is that there isn’t a “best format”. Technology keeps changing, and there’s absolutely no way to predict which current technologies (if any) will still be around in the next 50 or 100 years. Things can change an awful lot even in 20 years: somewhere in storage I have a box of 5.25″ floppy disks from my old Apple II+. If I suddenly had a desire to see what’s on those disks, I’d have my work cut out for me: while it’s certainly not impossible to find a 5.25″ floppy drive these days, it’s not a trivial matter, either. And 10 years from now, I reckon it’d be near impossible.

There are dozens of different ways to store data, and each one has their pluses and minuses. Magnetic media (like hard drives, tapes and proprietary disks like Zip disks) can often store huge amounts of data; however, magnetic media are also susceptible to damage from environmental issues (moisture, heat, shock, magnetic fields) and are also the most mechanically complex of the various backup types (and thus, prone to failure). The various types of “flash memory” like USB drives, Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) cards are renowned for being robust – indeed, the Internet abounds with stories of CF cards being run over by cars or washed in a jeans pocket and surviving. However, until only recently flash media had somewhat limited capacity, and flash still suffers from limited write-cycles and the unknown of future support.

So this leaves optical media like CD-R and DVD-R discs. Commercial CD and DVD discs (the ones you buy from Sony Music or Microsoft) are “pressed” much like vinyl records. A “master” is made containing the various “pits” on the disc (much like a record’s grooves) and thousands of copies are “stamped” from that master. CD-R and DVD-R technologies work by using a layer of dye which is heated by a laser to mimic those pits. It works well, but there are certainly some things you can do to make sure that your CD-R or DVD-R discs last as long as possible:

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