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This mini-blog is where you will find tips, tricks, hints and general rants about IT topics that effect business and home users alike. Click on the 'Subscribe to posts' link below to see new posts in your RSS reader as and when they appear.

End Of An Era

posted 11 Mar 2017, 12:21 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 11 Mar 2017, 12:46 ]

Way back in 1992 while working as a Microwave Design Engineer for an American communications firm I was looking for my next career move. I had toyed with the idea of working for myself for some considerable time but didn't know in what field. It was when my employer started to introduce PCs in the workplace and we were given specialist training by a third party that the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place with the thought, "I could provide better training courses than this".

And so my journey into self-employment began and BetamicroSolutions was launched on 6th Dec 1993.

Starting as an IT support and training provider I expanded into network installation, hardware sales, web development, database design and software development to name but a few, picking up numerous Microsoft qualifications along the way before ultimately transitioning in to Linux.

However, my core service remained support and training. As the years progressed clients required those services less and less. Business became much more familiar with IT and staff were expected to know how to use a computer. Though it is clear to me that computers are still used in a very inefficient manner, unfortunately my target market in the small business community simply isn't prepared to invest in the training and support they arguably need. This is particularly true since the financial crash of 2008. As long as they can get product out the door they are happy to muddle through.

This has made life difficult for me with new business increasingly hard to come by over the past 7-8 years or so. While I have looked at other avenues over the years - e.g. providing services to the domestic market and more recently offering tuition services in Maths - it is clear to me that my self-employment journey has come to an end. It has become more trouble than it is worth.

To that end, BetamicroSolutions will be officially wound up by the end of March 2017. I will be honouring any contracts that I currently have open but I will not be taking on any new business. This website will remain online until the domain name expires - sometime in 2018.

I look back at what I've achieved and feel a sense of pride in keeping the business running through various economic slowdowns, not to mention personal challenges. However, it is time to move on to pastures new and start the next phase in my life.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all my clients, past and present, for their custom. I wouldn't have lasted so long if not for them. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

"So long, and thanks for all the fish"

Alistair Hamilton BSc, Pg Dip, MCSE
BetamicroSolutions

Maths Tutoring

posted 22 Sep 2016, 03:40 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 22 Sep 2016, 03:43 ]

I am an experienced computer trainer and support professional offering Maths and Computer tutoring and IT support services from West Edinburgh through to Falkirk and across to West Fife. Having spent many years providing support and training to business students of all levels, from the Directors of multi-national companies to the self-employed in 'one-man band' operations I'm in a position to do the same for domestic users at a fraction of the cost available to the business community.

I am a very experienced computer software trainer having taught on a one-to-one basis or in large groups and to wide target audience skill set and I am now in a position to offer Maths tutoring services up to SQA National 5 level.

Aimed not only at school pupils currently studying for their exams but also adults who feel they need to brush up on their maths skills for their work for example.

Tuition will be provided in the comfort of your home and can be scheduled to suit you, including weekend and evenings. So if you are currently studying for your maths exams up to SQA National 5 level, or are struggling to understand the numbers everyone needs to deal with in daily life, then please give me a call to discuss your requirements. I can help.

BetamicroSolutions on Social Media

posted 16 Sep 2016, 03:29 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 16 Sep 2016, 03:30 ]

BetamicroSolutions now has a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Just use the corresponding buttons on the left to pay a visit and say "hello".

This will be used to keep you informed of any new topics on the site, announce any promotions and new services and for general, informal discussion of techie related topics. The main site - the one you are reading now - will always be the main source of IT related information.

Linux Malware

posted 18 Nov 2013, 12:22 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 29 Nov 2013, 03:12 ]

If you care to venture to any of the more common Linux forums you'll quickly find one of the most frequent questions from new Linux users is, "Does Linux need anti-virus software?". You'll also see that the majority of Linux devotees answer with a resounding, "No".

Personally, I do not think the answer is quite so black and white. While it is true that there are very few Linux viruses out there - certainly compared to the staggering amount that target the Windows platform - what there are, are quickly made ineffectual by the rapid release of updates within the Linux ecosystem. That does not mean to say that Linux is immune to malware attack.

I have to say up front that I've been using Linux since 2006 and I do not use anti-virus software and I have never been compromised. That is not to say that there aren't reasons for doing so.
  • If you share files with others who use Windows. While your Linux box may be resilient to Windows viruses you could unknowingly be spreading infected files.
  • If your Linux box connects to Windows computers or Linux servers running Samba - the Windows compatible file sharing server.
  • If your computer is configured to dual boot between Windows and Linux.

Such arguments can be used to justify the use of anti-virus software on a Linux box. Indeed, new Linux users coming from a long history of Windows use have it ingrained in their minds that anti-virus is a must. For those that insist on installing an anti-virus scanner on their Linux box there are a number of products available - some free, others not. Most are not as sophisticated as their Windows cousins. Many simply check for the presence of Windows based viruses on your system as opposed to checking specifically for Linux threats.

I've listed below three products that I have used in the past for testing purposes. Indeed, when called upon to clean a client's computer I frequently boot into Linux and use one of these programs as the first part of the clean up process.

  • Comodo - This is freeware and is unusual in the field of Linux ant-virus software packages in that is provides real time protection. Virtually all the others have to be initiated manually.
  • BitDefender - Freeware and proprietary. Works well assuming you can find the download from their site - it seems to change location every time I look. Requires registration and the input of a security code.
  • ClamAV - This will be available in your Linux distributions repositories. Note that this is a command line tool. If you want a GUI, you should also install the ClamTK package.

However, before you go rushing off to install one of these, can I point you in the direction of two excellent articles available on the Internet. These will give you further information regarding Linux based malware and security issues relating to your Linux box.

  • Linux Malware - This Wikipedia article gives an excellent run down on Linux based malware and contains many references to other articles you may find useful. It also has links to many more anti-virus software developers over and above the three mentioned elsewhere in this article.
  • Linux Basic Security - Taken from the Ubuntu wiki pages, this is a very worthwhile read for the new Linux user. Although Ubuntu centric, given that many distributions are based on Ubuntu the information applies equally well to them.

As you'll see, there are a number of anti-virus solutions for Linux. Do you need them? I wouldn't go as far as saying "no", but unlike Windows systems, on a Linux box they are far from a necessity. If however you'd feel a little more reassured by their presence, then by all means install one.

Be careful that installing anti-virus software doesn't lead you into a false sense of security. The first line of defense against malware is you, the user. Always exercise due diligence when visiting websites and exchanging files. That rule of thumb applies no matter what your preferred computing platform is.

Beware Cryptolocker Malware

posted 29 Oct 2013, 05:51 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 29 Oct 2013, 08:38 ]

Cryptolocker is a particularly nasty piece of malware currently doing the rounds. It encrypts your documents making them completely inaccessible. It then gives you 72 hours to pay for a fix before you lose everything. The criminals behind it are asking 300USD to decrypt your files.

The software not only looks in your 'My Document' folder but it will also search for documents on all connected hard drives as well as network drive that you have a connection to. As a result, depending on your network setup, the potential exists for all your business documentation to be encrypted.

Your files can be recovered using recent backups, so make sure you have such things and they work.

For those interested, here's a video from anti-virus developer, Sophos, which shows exactly how the malware works.


The PC Is Dead! Long Live The PC

posted 17 Oct 2013, 07:14 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 9 Nov 2013, 06:50 ]

With our ever increasing reliance on an interconnected World we have increasing methods available to us to maintain those links. Some smart phones are now more powerful than desktop computers were only a few short years ago. Last year's big Christmas must have gadget, the humble tablet, flew off the shelves as the latest fad took hold.

With these innovations allowing increasing connectivity while on the move, the doom merchants have been all too quick to proclaim that the desktop computer is nearing the end of its useful life. They point to the decreasing sales of desktops as evidence of its impending extinction. I'm sorry, I don't buy it. Sure, there has perhaps been a paradigm shift in the way the masses use technology but to suggest that everyone is moving over to tablets at the expense of the desktop doesn't make sense to me.

Tablets, and smart phones for that matter, are great for accessing the Internet on the move or for firing off a quick response to an email. Try working on a complex spreadsheet however and you will come unstuck. Indeed, trying to do anything constructive using a tablet is a pain in the proverbial backside, if not impossible. You'll find it very inefficient writing your biography on a smart phone.

Put simply, there are some things that tablets and smart phones are not suitable for and are better done using a desktop computer. For example, a small list of options might include:

Using a multiple monitor setup
Computer aided design
Audio and video editing
Any application that requires large amounts of input from the user - spreadsheets, word processing etc.
Easily expand and manage large amounts of data storage
Convert to a server, central media storage, firewall, print server and so on.
Animation design
Desktop publishing
Computer art

That list is by no means extensive, but there are a couple of other areas where a desktop machine beats using any other technology, including laptops.

Firstly, in terms of specification against performance, a desktop machine will almost always give you better 'bang per buck'. But more importantly, desktop machines are unsurpassed in their flexibility and ability to be upgraded. It's a relatively straight forward process to improve a desktop's performance by adding more RAM, increasing hard disk storage, adding an extra DVD drive, swapping over processor units and so on. Something one simply cannot do with tablets and smartphones. If you want to upgrade those, then I'm afraid it's a case of buying a new, better specified version and getting rid of your old one.

The value for money argument also applies to laptops. The convenience and portability of a laptop may seem appealing but if you are not going to be moving around, why pay extra for that portability? Not only will you be able to purchase a higher specified desktop for the same price as the laptop your were thinking of, but the on-going maintenance costs of repairing a desktop machine are much smaller. Not only that, unlike a desktop, any upgrades that you wish to make on your laptop will be limited if not nonexistent.

So, the bottom line is this. Think very carefully about why you intend to buy a particular piece of kit. Rather than one technology supplanting another, I think it more likely that these technologies will combine to compliment one another. It all boils down to how each user wants/needs to use their hardware but as far as the end of the PC era? I don't think so. The humble PC has always evolved so long term it may well morph into some sort of hybrid device. At the moment though it is just too powerful and flexible, with too many things reliant on it for it to simple cease to be.

I certainly don't see me abandoning mine anytime soon.

Beware Calls From 0014254069022

posted 2 Sep 2013, 02:01 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 5 Sep 2013, 02:47 ]

I've spoken about this scam before. This morning I was called again, though surprisingly, they didn't even bother to hide their number, which is why I've listed it above.

Note: This isn't the only number you may receive this type of scam from.

As is my usual tactic with these criminals when I have the free time, I try to keep them on the phone for as long as possible. Today was particularly good as it clocked up about 20 mins. That's 20 minutes they weren't preying on someone less knowledgeable than yours truly. Which is, of course, the reason I do it.

This call was unusual because I managed to have the caller completely flumoxed. So much so that he called his supervisor over to talk to me. Yes, these criminals have all the trappings of a legitimate call centre, including the noisy hussle and bussle in the background.

Throughout the call, I followed their instructions to the letter. But I use Linux and those instructions were for Windows and of course useless on my system. I was continually being informed that I should be seeing something when in actual fact, I was seeing something completely different.

Eventually, I was asked if I was using Windows. At this point I guessed the game was up and in no uncertain terms I told them that they were a bunch of crooks and to stop preying on the fears those less knowledgeable. I then hung up.

What made this particular call unusual was the fact that they called back and apologised for accidentally terminating the connection!

I immediately told them that both calls had been recorded and would be handed over to the police and hung up again.

These lowlifes really make my blood boil.

Speed Up A Slow PC

posted 28 Jul 2013, 03:57 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 10 Aug 2013, 16:44 ]

Are you finding your once super fast computer is now slowing to a crawl? Are you fed up with waiting for your computer to start up or an application to fully load? If so here are some things you can do to improve things.

First up, a number of tips that will not cost you anything other than some of your time...

  1. Start Again - The most drastic of all the suggestions so I'll put it first. Backup all your data, format your disk drives and reinstall Windows. While you're at it, partition your disk in two so that one partition is assigned solely to the operating system. When you come to reinstall your applications, use the custom location option to put them in the second partition.

  2. Eradicate Malware - One of the most common causes of computer slow downs, malware are computer programs which hide in the background and can perform all sorts of malicious functions. It is important to remove these as soon as possible not only from the point of view of speeding up your computer but for security reasons as well. Make sure you use a reputable anti-malware tool such as AVG, Avast or Microsoft's own Security Essentials.

  3. Defragment Your Disk Drives - Your applications and data are stored on your hard disk. On a new computer, these files are ordered and kept together. Over time, as you create, edit and delete files or install and uninstall applications the files become disjointed and spread over the disk. This means the hard disk has to work harder to read and write files making any disk access slower. One should minimise this fragmentation by running the Windows defragmentation tools on a regular basis.

  4. Clean Up - Removing unwanted programs and files from your hard disk will help to speed things up a bit (do so before you do any disk defragmention as it will reduce the time it takes). Similarly, remove unwanted entries from the registry (the database that holds all the hardware and software settings for your PC). To do this, use a reputable tool such as CCleaner from piriform.com. Note that it is very easy to mess up a PC by incorrectly modifying the registry so take care.

  5. Check The System Tray - This is the area in the bottom right of your screen along the taskbar. The icons listed there all represent applications that are loaded on start up. These are frequently not needed and simply take up resources as well as increase the start up time. Right-click on each item and check if there are options that allow you to prevent it loading on start up. If not, you can use the aforementioned CCleaner application or the in-built Microsoft utility, MSConfig, to disable or remove those entries from the start up process.

  6. Disable Non-essential Services - Windows comes with a whole host of functionality enabled by default. This functionality is provided by small programs known as 'services'. In many situations, individual services are not required and simply take up resources slowing down the boot process and the normal operation of the computer. For example, if you are not connected to a network, then you do not need the various services that provide network functionality.

    You can disable services individually by running the services administration tool, 'services.msc'. Remember, disabling a service prevents it from working so make sure you disable the correct ones. There is excellent, comprehensive details available at www.blackviper.com.

  7. Indexing/Search Service - The indexing service catalogues your files so that you can search for them more easily and quicker. Unfortunately, it can slow things down. If you organise your files in a sensible manner then this service becomes superfluous. Disable it.

  8. Automatic Updates - Conventional wisdom dictates that the default setting of Automatic Updates being on should be left alone. I disagree as it often fires when one is right in the middle of doing something, hogging resources and slowing the machine down. I prefer to be in control of what happens on my computer and when so I have it set to notify me when updates are available. I can then start the download and install process when I want at a convenient time.

    Remember, updating your machine is vitally important so don't simply ignore the notifications.

  9. Disable Themes - Is your computer configured to display special effects like fading windows, transparency, shadows and so on? Such eye candy serves absolutely no constructive purpose and simply uses computer resources that could be used for something else. Get rid of it.

  10. Remove Fonts - Windows comes with a load of fonts and installing office software and other applications frequently add to that list. You may see a performance improvement when running such software if you delete those fonts that you never use.

  11. Optimise BIOS - Make sure your BIOS is configured so that your hard disk is the 1st boot device; ensure the memory check is not enabled; if available, make sure the BIOS quick boot option is enabled; if available, disable the hard disk 'acoustic' mode.

  12. Disable Thumbnails - By default, folders in Windows are configured to display thumbnails of the files they hold. While this my useful for folders full of photos, it servers no real purpose for anything else. Turn them off.

  13. Disable File and Folder Compression - While it might save disk space, it slows disk access. Disable it.

Now for some tips that will need you to dip your hand in your wallet...

  1. Increase RAM - Random Access Memory is the temporary storage area into which applications and data are loaded when you are working on them. Increasing the amount of memory your system is perhaps the biggest single boost you can give it and provides excellent 'bang for buck'.

    Note however that if you are running a 32 bit operating system then only 3GB of memory will be recognised and there would be no point in adding more. 64 bit operating systems do not have that limitation.

    With that in mind, I'd look for the maximum on a 32 bit OS and a minimum of 4GB on a 64 bit OS though I'd prefer 8GB.

  2. Relocate The Page File - The page file or swap disk is a special section of the hard disk used to temporarily swap data out of RAM when that RAM is needed for something else. It is usually configured on the same hard disk as the operating system. If you install a second physical hard disk, move the page file to the non-system disk as the system disk is already very busy doing other things.

  3. Install An SSD - Normal hard disks are mechanical devices and as such have a limited access speed. Solid state drives are electronic and do not have the same physical restrictions. As such, they are significantly faster than traditional hard drives. By installing an SSD and using that to hold your operating system and applications while retaining the larger, albeit slower traditional hard disk to hold your data, you will see a dramatic improvement in the time it takes your computer to boot as well as the time it takes applications to load.

    The drawback? SSDs are not cheap, though the technology is improving all the time and as such, the prices are falling.

Give some of these a try and see how you get on. If you are unsure about performing some of these tasks yourself, please get in touch and I'll be only to happy to assist.

Old Before Their Time

posted 7 Apr 2013, 03:18 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 7 Apr 2013, 03:19 ]

Those in computer sales and marketing departments would have you believe that your new laptop or PC is only good for two to three years and come that day, you will have no choice but to ditch it and upgrade to a brand new shiny model. Absolute tosh!

If you maintain your equipment and look after it, it will still be more than capable of doing all the things it could do when you first bought it. It will still run the same software that was first installed on it. The problem comes when Microsoft introduce a new operating system or 'advances' in their office suite that need feeding with even more resources than before - resources that your two year old computer may no longer have.

In that situation, do you bend to the will of our ever increasing throw-away society and ditch your perfectly good machine for a new one or do you put your foot down and say enough is enough?

I can never be described as an environmental zealot, but I do what I can to minimise the impact I have on our surroundings. It always grieves me to see perfectly good computer equipment thrown away because it is not fashionable or the fastest bit of kit in town.

This is one area where Linux excels over Windows. It is far less resource hungry than Microsoft's offering and as such can install and run successfully on much older equipment. Indeed, there are some Linux distributions that are designed to run in less than 100MB of RAM.

Here at BetamicroSolutions Towers, there's been no new computer equipment purchased for years. The last computer purchased was the very one on which I now type - an eight year old Dell machine purchased on eBay for £80 and runs the Xubuntu Linux distribution. The office server is even older and happily sits in the corner running Ubuntu Server 12.04 LTS.

By way of a final example, my son's computer which I built for him nearly ten years ago, is now surplus to his requirements. Having not used it for three years, it was running painfully slowly under Windows XP. I recently wiped it and installed Linux Lite and it absolutely flies with the operating system taking up only 146MB of its 2GB memory. Indeed, Linux Lite is fast becoming my favourite distribution and is an excellent choice for those new to Linux.

So, if you think your computer is getting 'past it', think again. There are things you can do to extend its life and don't burn a hole in your pocket in the process. If you must get rid of it, please, at the very least, recycle it and don't send it to a landfill site.

Free Google Apps For Business Discontinued

posted 8 Dec 2012, 04:02 by Alistair Hamilton   [ updated 8 Dec 2012, 04:03 ]

For a long time, Google offered a standard version of their online apps product to small businesses for free. Initially, businesses of up to 50 users could sign up for this excellent service and it wouldn't cost them a penny. Over the years that was reduced to 25 users, then 10 users. Now, the free version has been removed altogether.

This change does not affect existing users of the product so those clients who I've set up using the free version are able to continue using the product as they have been. Indeed, you should have received an email directly from Google explaining as much.

This means of course that I can no longer advise SMEs that they can sign up for the free service. I can still provide set up services for Google Apps of course, but prospective clients should be aware that they will have to sign up to the enterprise product which currently cost under £5 per user per month - or roughly £50 per user per year.

Details of the announcement can be found on the Google Enterprise Blog.

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