Winning the Dongle Sweepstakes

I’ve had the intense misfortune lately of being tasked with deploying some high-end engineering software for two groups of engineers.

Now as anyone who’s been in IT since the Clinton or early Bush years knows, with engineering software comes licenses. And with licenses comes activation or licensing dongles. Or at least it did yesteryear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADongle. A word comical by its very nature. An appendage, seemingly out of place, begging to be cut off and thrown away. As useless as an appendix or your tail bone, a vestigal organ in your IT Department, ready to burst at any moment, leaking toxins all over your nascent IT career.

Dongles. Yeah, you looked around and saw 2013, software defined networks, cloud, virtual SANs,  IT freedom and business agility and then bam!

You get dongled. Out of nowhere. Getting dongled is like getting slapped upside the head with the rotting carcass of an inedible fish. We’re talking some serious old school, non agnostic-computing shit here people.

But I plugged the dongle in. Why won’t NT4 recognize it?

Yes back in the days when I was running several bare-metal CAD servers like Ideas M8 and, if I recall correctly, even Mathematica, the software manufacturers required serial dongle devices to hang off the back of the gigantic NT4 box. The dongle served two purposes for IT: 1) seeing it hanging off the back of a server was like a huge neon warning sign that constantly blinked GET THE F*(*@ AWAY FROM ME NOW, DON’T TOUCH! and 2) it was a physical manifestation of your intense pain in setting it up, worrying about it falling over, and fretting over whether your backups of that server would really work on different hardware.

Oy vey.

Nowadays things are a bit easier. In 2013, we at least have the option to license our engineering software via USB dongles or via FlexLM, the industry standard licensing manager for engineering programs. You still have to tie your server product to the hardware in some way (in most cases, the activation or license file is tied to IP or MAC address), but that’s easy in a virtual world where we’ve been freed from the tyranny of hard-coded MAC addresses.

Anyway, long introduction to say that there is something even worse than engineering software dongles. You might even call it the Dongle of Dongles, or perhaps the Head Dongle in Charge.

What is it this device, this Super Dongle, this slayer of project plans, this inflexible technology, this digital equivalent of an Islamic Fatwa?


CableCARD baby. Yeah you know the name. To talk of CableCARD, the dongle of dongles, you need to invoke some religion, to go biblical as it were. For, as it is written in 1 Samuel 18:7:

 The women sang as they played, and said, “Dongles have slain their thousands, but CableCARD its tens of thousands.”

Even the Hebrews writing thousands of years ago knew about the evils of CableCARD, the supposedly consumer-friendly, agnostic-computing-ish device whose purpose was to free you from having to rent a goddamned six year old black Scientific Atlanta Cable box (likely sticky and with stains on it for good measure) from your local government-backed cable monopoly just so you could have the privilege to pay for broadcast & cable TV with commercials.

cablecardCableCARD: the dongle that fools even sharp technologists by its simplicity. “Why what’s so complicated? It looks like one of those old school PCMCIA laptop cards. How hard could this possibly be?”

CableCARD: The pain it inflicts on those who try to deploy it at home echoes around the internet, haunting tech, tv, and internet forums alike, with ephemeral echoes of tales of horror, let down, dystopia and depression, and few -precious few!- stories of the brave persevering the fire and passing through the eye of the needle into freedom.

CableCARD: a device so nefarious, it turns normal non-geeks into Giant-Slayers, like this guy from some Tivo forum who inspired me as I was wrestling the beast:

It’s 4:52, Halloween, late afternoon. I’ve been on the phone with either one of two Time Warner phone support services 3 times; TiVo’s phone support service (twice); getting in my car and driving 10 miles for the distinct privilege of waiting in line for 20 minutes with the deadbeat and disgraced to pickup a new CableCard; 3 times with the CableCard activation service; all while searching and posting to the Tivo Community Forum… since 7:30 this morning. I am on a mission that will be my legacy. I’m single-handedly taking-on The 21st Century Corporate, Media Empire. That’s who I am and I will not be denied justice.

CableCARD: A device…no scratch that…a way of life with a purpose and a prize at the end. Unfortunately for the agnostic computing minded, that prize you get at the end of your epic struggle against the Man is…re-installing an old scratched DVD of Windows 7 Home Premium with Media Center Edition and watching TV on that and an unplanned, confused, and emergency period in which you buy an MCE Remote off Amazon only to realize sadly that it can’t even turn the TV off because it’s actually a USB HID device, and not a proper remote and guess what, you’re now an Ir expert in addition to everything else.

CableCARD: It’s just the size of a PCMCIA adapter and in contrast to the Scientific Atlanta box the woman at TWC keeps mistakenly inputting on your account (Yes, I’m quite sure I said CableCARD, for the 1000th time ma’am), it’s so tiny and it’s not going to mess with the feng shui of your living room or the TV you mounted meticulously on the wall over the course of an entire afternoon and the spousal unit will be quite happy that getting TV doesn’t necessarily mean getting big black boxes with lots of wires to place under the tv and oh it’s going to be great, really, haha, really it will, just hang tough, you’ll see.

And then you step back, you pause, you take a deep breath, and you look at what your hatred for renting one black box hath wrought:




and this:

Yes. I did it. I bought an open box PC from Best Buy for $230, or about 9 months worth of black cable box rental

which you had to buy at the last minute because your plans to build a home lab meant you can’t run Hyper-V or vSphere or even goddamned Virtual PC on a computer that needs be frisked, patted down, and butt cheeks spread by the DRM Police CableCARD brings with him to every party because he’s a f#$*(#$ kill-joy party-pooper

and, taking it all in, you break down and cry out to the universe, why?!? Why lord, why is it like this, why does it have to be so complicated, why can’t someone regulate this shit and make it better?” and then you fall to the ground sobbing because though you’ve met and defeated CableCARD, you’re still trying to conceal black boxes and wires. Only  now you’re doing it by adopting the habits of a junkie: hiding your shame and purchases inside used Ikea magazine containers, hoping no one will see them, and asking your local dealer for a deal on some used merchandise, it doesn’t have to be Grade A, a D- will do, you just need it now.

And here is what you get from your titanic battle with CableCARD:


Software Defined Drinking

SDD is probably pretty common in our line of work, but it’s almost never a good mix…late night chat with my British colleague after some maintenance work.

Me [10:38 PM]:
here you go
a bridge from your world to mine
Him [11:30 PM]:
sounds similar to direct attachedd storage into the cloud
Me [11:30 PM]:
yeah but slower than a usb drive lol
Him [11:31 PM]:
thre is a big awakening for storage
not sure where its going but somebody needs to pick a side
Me [11:32 PM]:
funny thing is if you abstract it enough, you start not thinking about where the session box is
and that’s ok. just have to get used to it
Him [11:33 PM]:
there is a major shift at the moment and nobody knows where its going
what would you choose
Me [11:34 PM]:
yeah that’s true
Him [11:34 PM]:
if everybody was going in differeent directions
Me [11:34 PM]:
we already got used to idea of virtualizing compute. and SAN. next is the biggest of all: software defined networking.
i was listening to a great interview of a guy
ccie or what have you, juniper, big network routing expert
he doesn’t even refer to Cisco or Juniper or alcatel anymore
physical switches, to him, are “the underlay”
he essentially writes software that breaks all the rules and makes networking as portable and movable as storage and compute
Him [11:36 PM]:
yeah the physical switch is now fabric and malible
Me [11:36 PM]:
and you’re right there’s a dozen different ways to get there
my little “Pertino” ipv6 program is a software defined network. and it’s amazing
vmm has it too
and vmware and a zillion others
Him [11:38 PM]:
the big question is where is this all going
nobidy knows
Me [11:38 PM]:
lol are you drunk. why do you keep asking that?
it’s going to the matrix man. I’ll play Neo, you be Trinity
Him [11:39 PM]:
i;ll be the agent
Me [11:39 PM]:
Him [11:39 PM]:
break down everything
Me [11:40 PM]:
wherever it’s going i want to go with it and not be flipping printers when i’m 40 or 50
because printers.
will. never.
be. virtualized. ever
Him [11:40 PM]:
yeah – we’ll be old school
its a brave new world where the complexity of servers and networks are gone
virtual everything and across platforms
Me [11:42 PM]:
you WILL need to know how to program or at least script. that’s what scares me
Him [11:43 PM]:
were in our early 30’s and already dinos
Me [11:43 PM]:
i know. goddamnit. when did that happen
Him [11:43 PM]:
fuck knows
somewhere between growing up and the world passing us by
it was about 5 min i thnk


And scene. He just faded away after that. I asked him if he was singing to me through Lync, and he asked if that would make me happy, and I said, hell yeah, let’s put your new Lync SIP trunk (That goes through my converged Hyper-v switch) to the test.

I think he’ll be in late tomorrow.

The Home Lab blues

I just moved to a new house that offers me about +500 sq. ft. more than my old condo, has an attached two car garage, four bedrooms, an attic in which to run cable, and a top TWC circuit speed of 50 down/5 up.

I know what you’re thinking. What a great place for a home lab! Glad we’re on the same page because I need your help.

What I want in a home lab

A home IT lab ought to enable you to, at a minimum, 1) recreate a smaller scale of your work environment so that you can catch that bug during an Exchange 2013 upgrade, for instance, or prove a colleague wrong, 2) experiment with competing technologies, 3) and enable you to get familiar enough with processes, issues, and technologies that you can at least say you are familiar with other techs in a lab environment, if not in production.

Also, your home lab ought to be considered production inasmuch as you need to serve data reliably to your family and loved ones.

If you look at a home lab that way (production & dev & qa & simulation) you rapidly want an IT lab version of this:


but have less money than it takes to build something sub-standard like this:


You, my friend, have the home lab blues.

What I have:

A motley crue of misfit tech that I want to build into a home IT lab

All that, plus I have this:


a wife who won’t tolerate adventures in IT spending at home and wants her husband to get work to pay for it.

Pretty sad isn’t it? I’ve got to simulate some old but truly enterprise-class hardware with this bunch of hardware, much of it resulting from ill-advised ebay purchases, over-valuation of my own ability, and drunken experimenting?

Virtualization to the Rescue? 

Perhaps. It depends on what you want to simulate. If you work in a place that use vSphere and your whole workload is Windows based, you’re at an advantage over other solutions because vSphere, to my knowledge, supports nested hypervisors. So you can build an entire active directory domain on top of two virtual machines that themselves are running Hyper-V (or vmWare or Xen server right?) And then you can build a virtual iSCSI or FC cluster, exchange, anything you like, right within your single PC, no switching necessary. The only thing I’m having trouble figuring out is the storage piece (just not that up to date on VMWare these days I’m afraid), but just about every cheap NAS out there (or FreeNAS) can do iSCSI or NFS shares, so you should be set.

Of course that’s great for the VMWare crowd. What if you’re one of the poor slobs whose entire enterprise runs on Hyper-V (last I checked we’re at 14% of the market)?

As best I can tell, to do Hyper-V + the Microsoft stack in your home lab, you need to scale up your hardware for your lab into something in between the super meth lab at top and its basement-dwelling/mobile-homed smelly meth lab at bottom.

That’s because Hyper-V does not allow for nested hypervisors, or at least not the ones you’re interested in as a Hyper-V engineer (that would be, Hyper-V).

All this and your access to Technet expires by the end of the year! Damnit!

Reusing what I Have

Because the Agnostic Computer Lab is allergic to spending (except in the cases noted above), I’ve got to re-use or re-purpose my so-called stack for a Hyper-V lab.

And this is where the Home Labs Blues come in. You’re a creative guy, willing to break things, to experiment, but after several days of mulling it over in your head, you realize you can’t build a real Hyper-V lab at home with your crap that sufficiently simulates your work.

  • Compute:The Lenovo ThinkCentre is fine, in fact you’re running client Hyper-V on it now. It’s adequate enough to run several VMs + your home workload
  • Network: Netgear R7000 is so new it doesn’t have DD-WRT (aka Real Router software) yet, or at least not a version you would trust
  • Network, Compute, or Storage: Raspberry Pi: Shoe-in for one of two roles: 1) Gateway device to replace the R7000 which can’t do much, with DNS, DHCP, DNS Cache, and routing all built in to one of those boutique RPi packages or 2) FreeNAS + USB 3.0 drive = iSCSI or NFS target. Sadly FreeNAS doesn’t do SMB 3.0 yet (Indeed, they still call it CIFS, a violation  of the rules!), so experimenting with that kickass storage spec (EMC says it’s the future of storage protocols, naturally) in your home lab is probably out of the picture unless you attach it to your Lenovo. Plus RPi only has USB 2 ports
  • Compute: I’d love to re-purpose the Google Chromebox from Google I/O into a compute engine. A core i5 Hyper-V box mated to my Lenovo would be more than enough for my purposes, all I’d have to do is buy a little bit of RAM and use the USB drive as storage. Sadly the Chromebox had its virtualization bits turned off mistakenly when it was built, and to get the standard Intel virtual-enabling switch turned back on, you have to hack the damned BIOS. There are instructions, but I’m not feeling confident after reading over them for a week, and can’t find many online who have successfully re-purposed the Google I/O “Stumpy” Chromebox into anything else except for a kvm hyper-visor on RHEL.
  • Compute or Storage:The ARM-powered ChromeBook is just not suited for x86 virtualization in any way that I can think of save, for potentially, a storage host. Of course I’ve installed Chrubuntu and Chronos and even ARM and some other linux flavors, but aside from NFS shares, which I can’t really use in Hyper-V, what good would this device be?
  • Network: At least my 8 port GigE switch from Netgear is somewhat suitable for my home lab exercise. It can do LACP port channels (useful for Hyper-V hosts spefically), 802.11q VLANs (very useful) and a couple other great features for a small, < $100 switch.
  • Other laptops: The Frankenstein Windows 7 Thin Client laptop has no use in a virtualization lab, nor do the other junk laptops I have lying around: A Gateway LT303U with an AMD CPU that my mother in law is using, a Dell Lattitude D610 with an ancient Intel Pentium, and a 2012 Asus laptop with an Intel Pentium M, which I was excited about but it turns out Intel turns off virtualization on their cheap ass processors

So yeah, I’m out of luck. Primarily on the compute side. I have one computer capable of running Hyper-V. I could throw vSphere on it, I guess, losing my only capable desktop PC but gaining the ability to emulate a real datacenter. But what’s the wife going to say when she sits down at the Lenovo and vSphere comes up?

I got me some storage I can use, but nothing approaching the compute power required to test out 2012 R2’s nifty new Scaled Out File Server role (can’t co-locate SOFS + Hyper-V) and to use SOFS, you need expensive SAS storage. I got me loads of compute in my Chromebox, but I can’t re-purpose it without learning microcontroller programming, a truly dark art even I’m not interested in. I got me a nice switch that does, via web gui, everything the work one does, but only one thing to plug into that would take advantage of it (the Lenovo).


Sucks to admit it, but I think I’ve got to spend. But what? I want a small footprint but capable PC running at least a Core i3 or i5 and that can support up to 32GB of RAM to make sure I can continue to use it in a few years (Lenovo tops out at 16GB in my current box).

I’m thinking Mac Mini (an appropos choice for the Agnostic Computing lab), a Gigabyte BRIX, or a custom PC inside a shuttle case (offers 2GigE built in) and have a total budget of about $700.

Any thoughts?