FlexRaid on Server 2012 instead of Space Storage

FlexRaid

FlexRaid – Software Raid and Storage Pool

In the past, I have been using the onboard RAID controller of my Home Server’s motherboard to secured its data, a RAID 5 with 6 HDD to be more precise. But I was in a urgent need for a new solution.

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Indeed, I had several concerns:

  • If the motherboard would die, data would not be accessible anymore except with a replacement motherboard with same amount of identical RAID controllers
  • if I would be out of space, new disks could not be added to easily in the existing RAID array (mainly due to lack of space in the case). Also replacing existing disks with larger ones would be quite dangerous as duplicating the whole array before such a risky upgrade was not possible (lack of backup storage).
  • After a power failure or a BSOD, the RAID was checked (for about 12 hours), making all read access veryyyy sloooooooow.
So, I have decided to “upgrade” my Home Server with
  • A server case able to enclose up to 24 HDD (with adequate controller cards)
  • A software RAID solution to not rely on hardware anymore
  • A software Pooling solution to be able to expand seamlesslythe storage space
For the Home Server Hardware part, including the case, see here.

For the Software part, I wanted to go with a Server 2012 Essentials because I really like

  • Its centralized PC-image backup feature and
  • Its centralized File History backup functionality.
  • I don’t want to mix OS in my network

Server 2012 also supports pools of disks with data redundancy, a feature named Space Storage. But it has a several (big or not) disadvantages IMO:

  • Drives containing data may not be added into the pool :(
  • In addition, if the server dies, a disk moved into another PC will be readable but not writable, except if this other PC is also running Space Storage and all disks are moves. That could be an issue if the dead server cannot be quickly replaced.

So… What else ? I started to look for solutions to manage pools of disks or to manage RAID, or – better – to do both: Greyhole, SoftRaid, mhddfs, UnRAID, FlexRAID, mdadm, SnapRaid, Amahi, FreeNAS, disParity, LVM, JBOD, MooseFS, GlusterFS, ZFS, Liquesce… And I finally decided to go with FlexRaid although it is not free (but not expensive either):

  • It runs on Windows Server 2012 x64 (On the opposite, FreeNAS or Unraid for example are integrated with their own OS – linux based).
  • It has a nice Web UI (based on extJS like the DSM of my Synology) which make remote management easy and comfortable, although IMO there is still place for improvement.
  • It supports both RAID software and Pooling (There are separated licences if you don’t want both)
  • It has supports for either a RealTime protection or a Snapshot mode (I.e.: RAID is nightly updated on schedule – not slowing down read/write access during the day).
  • Disks containing data can be added in the Pool at any time.
  • Disks can be temporarily removed to be accessed from within another machine. If Snapshot mode is used, data may be modified before re-plugging the disk in FlexRaid. Notice: If data are modified, they will only be protected if the disk is re-plugged in FlexRaid and if a the RAID is updated.
  • Disks temporarily removed can be re-plugged anywhere in the machine. FlexRaid does not rely on the physical location but on the disk mount point which is “memorized” on the disk itself.
  • It does not store any recovery information on the disks containing data. This information is stored on dedicated disks
  • It supports multiple simultaneous disk failures (it implements several type of RAID) depending on how many disks are assigned to store the recovery information.
  • It comes with a Wizard “for dummies” to easily create a pool of disks with a few default settings. It also supports an expert mode with more flexibility – but also with more complexity;
  • Disks can be replaced with larger ones.
  • As far as the FlexRaid configuration is backuped, the OS can be re-installed from scratch; the recovery information won’t have to be recomputed and the data are safe.
  • In case of crash, RAID validation is fast (I still have to check the speed of a recovery)
  • It has support for S.M.A.R.T monitoring with email alerts (although configuring S.M.A.R.T is not integrated in a Wizard and can require some research).

To be honest, IMHO, the version 2.0 of this product is not yet ready for all end-users. They will have to be comfortable themselves with server engineering to solve various possible issues. Also, it seems to me that only one technical guy from FlexRaid is answering questions and offering support on the official forum. He knows very well his product, but still…

On my own, I had a lot of issues while testing the product – mainly because I did a lot of operations like creating/deleting pools, adding/removing disks, sharing/un-sharing folders, stopping/starting the service, etc… But also because Murphy was at the party: after many various issues followed by a complete re-installation of the server, one disk used to store FlexRaid’s parity data started to die. If you intend to test it, I really recommend to do it in a VM with virtual drives that can be easily re-staged. FlexRaid has a Trial of 14 days.

Once the dead disk removed, FlexRaid started to run fine with the following “configuration” (as named in FlexRaid) – See Attention Points before create a new configuration:

  • 3 data disks (named DRU in FlexRaid terminology – they contains the data) compound each of 2 HDD (2TB + 3TB)
    • HDD used in DRU are not using a proprietary format but simply NTFS
    • HDD can be added in a DRU with existing data
    • HDD can be of any size, but DRU have better be of the same size.
  • One parity disk (named a PPU in FlexRaid terminology – they contain the recovery information) compound of 2 HDD (2TB + 3TB).
    • PPU must be at least as large as the largest DRU
      • It has better be larger because in case of bad-sector on a HDD in the PPU, FlexRaid will be out-of-space and fail to update the parity data.
    • It’s recommended to have one PPU per 3 DRU.
  • PPU and DRU created with the wizard (Cruise Control) instead of the expert mode.
    • Merge Mode = “Auto-Folder-Priority”.
      • To optimize power consumption (most probably only one drive accessed when fetching data)
      • To keep data grouped if by any chance the disks must be moved into another PC during DRP.
    • a Snapshot mode
      • To not slow down write operation
      • As anyway, data on the Home Server does not change often at all.
  • A login/password set in “System Control Toolbox” > Login pane
  • Automatic start-up of FlexRaid storage pool 15″ after the Server boot in “[your configuration] > “Preferences and settings”
  • A Scheduled Task to Update the RAID (Parity Data) every day at 23:00.
  • A Scheduled Task to Validatethe RAID (Parity Data) every week at .
    • The Validate task does both change detection along with datarot (silent data corruption) detection through data checksum valiation.
  • A Scheduled Task to Verifythe RAID (Parity Data) every month.
    • The Verify task does bit for bit verification of the RAID.
To be safe however, and based on the amount of disk I have, someone from FlexRaid told me I should either use two PPU of 3TB or possibly add one PPU of 5TB. Doing so, I will double the security level (the RAID could survive after 2 simultaneous disk failures) while only loosing ~6% of space (1TB). For sure, RAID updates will be slower as 2 PPU will have to be updated. But based on my experience, it’s really not that slower. It takes about 1 hour per TB of Data.
Here is a benchmark of accessing data in FlexRaid’s pool configured with one 5TB PPU and 3x5TB DRU (And I got the same results for two 3TB PPU and 4x3TB DRU…) Clearly, FlexRaid with SnapShot mode does not really impact the performances… (Actually, one the Pool features has an impact).
FlexRaid Snapshot Performance

FlexRaid Snapshot Performance

Here is the same benchmark for accessing data in an equivalent Pool with the Real-Time mode..;

FlexRaid Real-Time  Performance

FlexRaid Real-Time Performance

Writing small files is not performing well in Real-Time but that’s due to the accesses to the FlexRaid Configuration Database (on C:\). If that drive is on a SSD, those performance should be quite improved (Support to store that DB on another disk is foreseen…)

For information: it took a little bit less that 13 hours to compute the parity for about 11TB of data in this 15TB pool.

ATTENTION POINTS:

Before starting:

  • Drives used by FlexRaid may not be used as target for Paging or Shadow Copy.
    • However, Shadow Copy can be used as far as the volume used as target for the Storage Location is on a dedicated drive outside of the Pool.
      • Shadow Copy must be enabled:
        1. On the Start Screen type Computer and run Computer Management
        2. Right-Click Shard Folders > All Tasks > Configure Shadow Copies…
        3. Enable for all sources drives (DRU) but not for the virtual drive (Pool)
      • And the Storage Location must be configured on each disk
        • Via the Dsik Management node in the Computer Management:  Properties > Shadow Copies Tab > Settings button > Storage Area (Click details) (to be completed).
        • Configured via command lines (to be completed)
  • Recycle Bin may not be used on drives used by FlexRaid as well as in the virtual drive (pool)
    • Instead FlexRaid proprietary Recycle Bin can be enabled in the Snapshot mode only (there is no such support for Real-Time mode): Configuration > Preferences and Settings > Advanced Properties : Enable Recycle bin mode: true (and Save).
    • Also, make sure this registry folder exists or you could experience “Recycle Bin on V: is corrupted” errors
      • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\BitBucket (For 32 bit Windows)
      • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\BitBucket (For 64 bit Windows)
    • And finally disable all the Recycle Bin on the drives intended to be managed by FlexRaid (as well as on the virtual drive)
      1. Using Windows Explorer, navigate to each drive create a dummy file and then delete that dummy file. This will for sure create a Recycle Bin
      2. After doing the above for each drive, empty the recycle bin
      3. Right-click on the Windows recycle bin icon and choose properties
      4. There disable recycle bin for each of your drives
      5. Reboot
Also notice:
  • FlexRaid web UI is not fully compatible with Chrome. Some expansible panes of this UI collapse and expand for ever one accessed.
  • The logs are full of security errors. It’s simply due to the Web Client UI session which expires… It’s not fatal.
    • To change the log level, edit the files in C:\Program Files (x86)\<FlexRAID folder>\logging.options.txt
      • FLEXRAID_LOG_LEVEL=TRACE
      • FLEXRAID_SYS_LOG_LEVEL=TRACE
    • Also change the logs location as many files will be created in TRACE level
      • FLEXRAID_LOG_FILE_ROOT=C:\FlexRaidLogs\
  • The path of the log in Log4j.properties must be like C:/FlexRaidLogs/
  • I always experience issues when trying to remove disks from PPU or DRU. The only solution I found is to delete the configuration and create a new one.
  • Once a disk is added in a PPU or DRU, it’s mounted by FlexRaid in a hidden folder under C:\FlexRAID-Managed-Pool\…
    • This folder is only accessible by the System account which is the account configured to run the FlexRaid Service.
    • After deleting a “configuration” or uninstalling Flexraid, this folder is still there.
    • To view it, you must
      1. Start Explorer, click on the “View” menu and select “Options” (on the extreme right).
      2. There, go to the “View” tab and tick “Show hidden files, folder and drives”
      3. Uncheck “Hide protected operating system files (recommended).
    • Once the folder is visible, you can change the Security and grant full access right to the “Administrators” group. Possibly use this great tip to also easily take back the ownership with a contextual menu (works only on files/folders. not on drives).
  • Hidden files are not protected as ignored by FlexRaid.
  • When deleting a “configuration”, disk that were assigned a letter before being added in a PPU or DRU will get back that letter. However, in my case, disks were mounted. After deletion of the “configuration”, they should have been re-mounted on their original folder (according to someone from FlexRaid). But this didn’t occur. I had to re-mount them myself one by one. I have not receive any valid explanation yet…
  • When managing Shares and Permissions via FlexRaid UI:
    • You must use username defined in the domain (on Server 2012 Essential, a domain is always installed by default – and mandatory for various services). However, you don’t have to prefix that username with the domain name (I.e.: <domain>\<username>)
    • Latest changes done via the UI appear sometimes to not be reflected immediately in the Windows Properties (In the “Advanced Sharing” tab of the folder). Ex.: If you delete permissions for a user. You must both
      • Close the folder Properties window if already open in Windows.
      • Navigate to the “Home” menu and back to “Server Shares” in FlexRaid UI.
      • Back to the folder Properties > Advance Sharing, the changes should now be visible.
    • Don’t forget that you need to use a domain user to access the shares from remote machine. If you try to access them from a PC not joined to the domain, you must provide a login like “<domain>\<username>”. Also remind that Server 2012 Essentials is missing “HomeGroup” support.
Important remarks:
  • When using a “Snapshot” mode, data are in great danger as soon as files start to be modified and as long as the RAID is not updated. Indeed, as some data are modified, the information on the PPU may not be used anymore to restore files in the same range of address (?) in a DRU which would crash. Concretely, files restored using a not-up-to-date PPU will be corrupted.
    • I didn’t find any information that confirm (or not) that a disk is most likely to fail during write operations. But as I plan to often backup data on my server, I am afraid that I wouldn’t be able to restore my files after a crash occurring such an operation… So => I will investigate the RealTime mode which is still experimental
  • When using a RealTime Mode
    • Only use softwares that preallocate files to copy data into the pool (e.g.: Windows Explorer but not TeraCopy!!!)
    • There must be at least 10GB of free space on each disk going to be added in the Pool (As DRU).
    • Check that the Reserve is at least 50GB or more in the Configuration > Preferences and Settings > Run-Time Properties > General Properties: Reserve. This is the default when using the Cruise Control mode.
    • After a server crash, a Reconcile is required (Similar to a Windows Disk Scan).
    • Always stop the storage pool through the Web UI before restarting the FlexRAID service or your OS!!!
      • This can be solved using a Shutdown Task to be created in the Local Group Policies. See the script posted as comments.
    • Increase the WaitToKillServiceTimeout Registry key value to 300000 (it’s 5000 by default; i.e. Windows systems will kill the service in as little as 5 seconds which often does not leave FlexRAID with enough time to properly close up it resources).
      • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ System \ CurrentControlSet \ Control
    • Never write directly to the “source” drives but only through the pool as Explorer writes silently data on the disks. It means that a drive may never be temporarily removed from the pool, accessed from within another PC (even for “READ” only operations) and re-plugged later in the pool.
    • There is no Recycle Bin, meaning that data are deleted permanently.
      • And unfortunately, Shadow Copies can NOT be used on the Pool… So it cannot be used either to restore deleted files.
      • Actually Recycle Bin must be disable on all disks participating in the pool as well as on the pool itself. And that must be done for all accounts connected on the server.
      • As a replacement, the undeluxe software pro can be used. It can run as a service (start with windows) and will move deleted files into a folder that can be configured to be located on a drive outside the FlexRAID Pool… As an alternative, FlexRAID will come with a universal recycle bin in a next version…
    • It could be advised – for the Real-Time mode only – to disable thumbs.db file generation although those files being hidden, they are not taken into account (I.e.: not protected by FlexRaid). In addition
      1. On the Start Screen, type and run gpedit.msc.
      2. Expand User Configuration – Administrative Templates – Windows Components.
      3. Click on File Explorer.
      4. Right-click the entry “Turn off the caching of thumbnails in hidden thumbs.db files” and choose Edit.
      5. Enable the setting.
      6. Log off and back on again (or reboot) after making these changes.
      7. Delete all the thumb.db files from you drives using this command: Del {Drive Letter}:\Thumbs.db /f/s/q/a
    • Actually the options “Restrict Thumbs.db” and “Restrict Desktop.ini” can be used in the Console for that purpose, but it is useful only when using the Real-Time RAID in Expert mode and if frequently browsing the source drives. Indeed, although we are not changing anything on the source drives, Explorer will actually update the thumbs.db and desktop.ini files as we browse. There are implications though with selecting those options as Explorer will no longer cache your thumbnails or remember certain folder view preferences.
    • Parity data are only updated when accessing the drives through the Pool. If data are modified directly on the source drives, you will have to fix that by running the Reconcile task in FlexRaid.
  • That being, the following Windows Features are safe to use with FlexRaid
    • Windows Search Service
    • Windows Backup
    • BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service)

Site: http://www.flexraid.com/

Documentation: http://wiki.flexraid.com/

Support: http://forum.flexraid.com/ (support Tapatalk ;))

Freewares Hard Drive Diagnostic: CrystalDiskInfo

Crystal Disk Info

Crystal Disk Info

CrystalDiskInfo is is a nice freeware utility for hard drive diagnostics with support for monitoring and mail alerting based on disks’ S.M.A.R.T info.

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It usually supports USB connection and Intel RAID. But I like it as it gives more information than some other similar tools, a.o.: the letter assigned to the disk or the disk number instead of only the disk model name. And it can also be used to monitor the machine and send mail alerts.

Also, in addition graphs with S.M.A.R.T. information, it also show you the AAM/APM settings and let you control them.

  • AAM (Automatic Acoustic Management) to reduce noise
  • APM (Advanced Power Management) to reduce power consumption
It has also advanced methods to search for disks (It show disk displayed as unknown by other tools)
 

Donwload  : http://crystalmark.info/download/index-e.html

HDD Scan

Hdd Scan

HDDScan is another nice freeware for hard drive diagnostics with support for RAID arrays, Flash USB and SSD drives.

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It can be used to :

  • Test storage device for bad-blocks and bad-sectors,
    • Verification in linear modeto determine if the drive needs data rescue, has recoverable errors or in its perfect shape.
    • Reading in linear mode is a simpler, but faster disk check.
    • Erasing in linear mode.
    • Reading in Butterfly mode (synthetic random read).
  • Show S.M.A.R.T. attributes
  • Show temperatures
  • Change some HDD parameters such as:
    • AAM (Automatic Acoustic Management) to reduce noise
    • APM (Advanced Power Management) to reduce power consumption

I like it too, in addition to CrystalDiskInfo because it can test the disks and I noticed that it was providing some other S.M.A.R.T attributes than CrystalDiskInfo…

Download: http://hddscan.com/

Information about S.M.A.R.T messages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.M.A.R.T

Freewares Disable the touchpad while typing text: TouchFreeze

TouchFreeze is a free, open-source utility for laptops that disables the touchpad as soon as one starts typing… and re-enables it when one stops.

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As many laptop users, when my palm accidentally grazes the touchpad while typing text, I experience unpredictable cursor  jumps resulting in garbled text :(

TouchFreeze is very small piece of software sitting in the system tray: it simply and silently turns off the touchpad while one is typing. It works really really fine and is compatible with Windows 8 x64.

Download: http://code.google.com/p/touchfreeze/

Hardwares Windows 8 Pro x86 and Media Center Pack on Acer Idea 510 – successful

As the upgrade of my Acer iDea 510 with Windows 8 x64 and the MCE feature pack failed (See here) as well as using XBMCbuntun (See here), mainly due to issue with drivers, I have decided to give a try to Windows 8 x86.

And now, the result is really great – the HD video is playing very well and standby mode is back! The only tricky part was to force the installation of Nvidia Video Drivers for Vista on Windows 8.

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First, I did install Windows 8 pro x86.

Notice that during the installation, I did check the option to automatically activate Windows.

Next, for the Software part: I did install the Media Center feature Pack:

  • On this page, request a free licence for this pack (Offer limited until 31 jan 2013).
  • On the Start Screen, type “add features” to select “Add Features to Windows 8”.
  • In the “Add Features to Windows 8” window, select “I already have a product key” and enter the free key got previously for the MCE pack.
  • Notice that once MCE installed, the “Add Features” is not available anymore in Windows…
  • Configure MCE

After that, I didn’t experience the same issue (licence not valid for activation) as I did when testing Windows 8 x64. I means that I most probably skipped a step during the first time ? Possibly I did install the MCE pack before the activation of Windows ?!

  • Start a Windows Update and install Microsoft .Net 3.5 (required for the next step)
  • Install and configure the latest version of Media Browser (.Net 3.5 is a prerequisite)
At that time, I noticed that MCE was reacting very slowly and not displaying smoothly movies… Just like during my tests with Windows 8 x64… To solve this, I really had to install video drivers specific for Acer iDea 510’s graphic card: a NVidia GeForce Go 7600.
  • Drivers for the GeForce Go 7600 compatible with Vista or Windows 7 should theoretically run fine on Windows 8. But unfortunately, the setup usually refuses to install those drivers because they don’t officially target this OS. It’s only due to information configured in the .inf file used by windows to install the drivers. It means that we can reconfigure those settings to become “compatible” with Windows 8.
    • Download the drivers (self-extracting exe named “18070_vista.exe”) and the adapted .inf file (named “nv_disp.inf”) separately from the bottom of this  page http://www.laptopvideo2go.com/drivers/vista/180.70/disclaimer/
    • Those are unofficial drivers and not WHQL certified.
    • Audio via HDMI is not supported by these version of the drivers. You need an older version (See replies bellow this post).
    • Once the drivers and the .inf file downloaded, extract the self-extracting package (exe file) and move nv_disp.inf into the extracted folder (“180.70_vista”).
    • Run the setup.exe and don’t be afraid if you see that it’s for Vista.
    • Once installed, reboot the system. You will clearly see the difference (the resolution will be much higher – 1920×1080 instead of 1024×768 – and MCE   runs now much faster).
  • The issue mentioned above does not exist anymore with Windows 8.1. For that version of Windows, a version 307.68 of the NVIDIA Drivers is downloaded automatically when updating the drivers. It works fine except that there is no sound via HDMI (although there is an option “Set up Digital Audio” in the NVIDIA control panel to enable it !). If you don’t have an optical connection and need the sound to go through HDMI, you will need to downgrade the drivers to 173.90. But that one comes with other issues, much more annoying… (See in the replies)
  • Install K-Lite codecs to be able to play HD movies (mkv)
  • Configure the codes to play French audio by default
    • Go to C:\Program Files\K-Lite Codec Pack\Tools and run CodecTweakTool.exe
    • Under configuration, select DirectShow Filter
      • Click Haali Media Splitter > Options tab > Languages > Audio Language Priority > enter “fre” (the three letters of French). Click Ok.
      • Click LAV Splitter > enter “fre” in both “Audio” and “Subtitle” and select “Only forced Subtitle”. Click Ok.
      • Click LAV Video Decoder. In Hardware Acceleration, select XDVA2 and check the two options H.264 and MPEG-2.
  • Disable UAC (reboot required to become effective)
  • Disable Firewall for private network
  • Enable Remote Desktop:
    • On the Start Screen type “system”, click on “Settings” and select “System” in the results.
    • Click on “Remote Settings”
    • Enable “Allow remote connections to this computer”
  • Configure the Speakers 5.1
    • Right click the speaker in the sys-tray and select “Playback Device”
    • At the bottom of the tab “Payback”, click on “Configure”
    • Select the second 5.1 in the list of “Audio Channels” (with 2 speakers on the back).
  • Create a new user with MCE instead of the windows shell
    • Create a new standard user “Media Center” without password
      • On the start screen, type “Create User” and select Settings
      • In the list of results, click on “Create Standard User Account”
      • Select “Add a new user in PC settings”
      • Under “Other Users”, click on “Add a User”
      • At the bottom of the page, click on “Sign in without a Microsoft Account”
      • At the bottom of the page, click on “Local Account”
      • Enter the name “Media Center”, nothing else (no password) and click Next.
    • Change the picture of the user “MediaCenter”
      • Go back to the Start Screen (Ctrl + Esc)
      • Click on your account in the top-right corner and select “MediaCenter”
      • Wait while Windows prepare the PC for this user.
      • Once on MediaCenter’s Start Screen, open IE and find a nice picture, right click on it and save it in the picture library.
      • Go back to the Start Screen and click on MediaCenter’s account in the top-right corner to select “Change Account Picture”
      • In “PC Settings/Personalize/Account Picture”, select Browse and pick the picture from the libraby
    • Possibly: enable Room Correction in the Speakers Properties\Enhancement… (microphone required )
    • Configure MCE Media Library and the Screen Saver
      • Run MCE
      • Go to the Tasks > Settings
      • Select Media Libraries and configure them
        • E.g.: Add the “Pictures” folder of the NAS. This one must be either public or the user “MediaCenter” must be granted access via the NAS user management UI.
      • Go back to Tasks > Settings
      • Select Pictures
      • Select Slide Show Screen Saver
        • Check that the option “Play my favorite pictures …” is enabled
        • Set the delay before starting the Screen Saver
        • Save
      • Select Favorite Pictures
        • Select Use All Pictures (Or anything more relevant)
    • Sign-out (Via the Start Screen, right click the account in the top-right corner, …)
    • Replace the Shell Explorer (explorer.exe) of MediaCenter with MCE (ehshell.exe)
      • Log in as an administrator
      • On the Start Screen of the administrator, type mmc and select mmc.exe in the list of results
      • Type Ctrl+M to Add a Snap-in
      • Select “Group Policy Object”
      • Click Add.
      • In the new window, click Browse
      • in the new window, open the “User” tab and select “MediaCenter”.
      • Then click Ok, Finish and Ok.
      • Back into mmc, select in the left pane: Console Root > Local Computer\MediaCenter Policy > User configuration > Administrative Templates > System
      • In the right pane, double-click on “Custom User Interface”
      • In the new window, check “enable”
      • Under the Options, type in the field “Interface file name”: %windir%\ehome\ehshell.exe /mediamode
      •  Switch to the user MediaCenter for testing purpose!

Here is the list of MCE switches (most of them provided by Andrew Cherry and Missing Remote) that can be used as on the command line ehshell.exe

  • /nostartupanimation – disables the startup animation
  • /noshutdownui – removes the shutdown item from Tasks
  • /mediamode – start in “media only mode” with no minimize/close buttons (use F4 to quit MCE)
  • /widescreen – force widescreen mode
  • /directmedia:general – force full screen
  • /directmedia:video – force full screen and navigate to the video library 
  • /nochrome – launch windowed mode without the containing window
  • /playallmusic – Play all music at startup
  • /playfavmusic – Play favorite music at startup
  • /playfavslideshow – Play favorite slideshow at startup
  • /playfavslideshowwithmusic – Same as above with music
  • /playslideshow – Play all slideshows
  • /playslideshowwithmusic – Same as above with music
  • /screensaver – Start media center in screensaver mode
  • /configuress – Start media center at configuring screen saver menu

Multiple switches can be enabled by entering multiple switches separated with a space in the target input.

Finally, from the hardware point of view, notice that:

  • The remote control is working fine
  • WiFi and Ethernet connection are working fine
  • Ethernet NIC is configure to allow WOL
  • The front Digital Display is  recognized by Windows 8 but not displaying anything else that “Welcome To Aspire IDEA.
    • I did try to install the drivers from Acer web site (named “VFD Transcoder Driver 1.01.01.zip”) successfully, but it didn’t fix anything. I am not surprised as this display was already not working with Windows 7
  • Drivers are missing for the 2 Multimedia Video Controllers devices (See previous try with Windows 8 x64)
    • I did install the drivers from Acer web site (named “MPC718_install_V6_13_32_1026_Oscar.msi”) and those devices were recognized without any issue.
  • Standby mode works out of the box (nothing to fine tune in Windows) with the remote control.
    • I didn’t change the BIOS settings since my first try with Windows 8 x64.
  • Wake-up on Lan works out of the box (nothing to fine tune in Windows) if the shutdown was initiated from MCE (or XBMC – see here after). If the shutdown is done from the Start Screen, WOL does not work!!!
    • I didn’t change the BIOS settings since my first try with Windows 8 x64.
    • The difference in support for WOL or not depending on where the shutdown is initiated is explained here: In Windows 8, the default shutdown behavior puts the system into hybrid shutdown (S4) and all devices are put into D3. Remote Wake-On-LAN from hybrid shutdown (S4) or classic shutdown (S5) is unsupported.
    • Indeed, a boot after a default shutdown is fast. On the opposite, a boot after MCE/XBMC’s shutdown is clearly much slower.
    • As I don’t car about slow boot on this PC (which is usually in sleep mode anyway), I did disable the hybrid shutdown (S4) a.k.a “Fast Startup” :
      1. On the Start Scren type “Power” and select “Settings”.
      2. Click on “Change what the power buttons do” in the list of results.
      3. Click on “Change settings that are currently unavailable” if UAC is not disabled
      4. Uncheck “Turn on fast startup (recommended)”
      5. Select “Save Settings” and test a shutdown/WOL. It works !
Notes:
  1. After booting the PC, windows automatically re-log in with the last account (if this one has a blank password)  (I didn’t configure that?!)
  2. The “Restart” feature doesn’t work. The PC shutdowns but does neither power off nor reboot… This seems to be due to the video drivers as the PC restarts fine with other drivers (but with those, the PC didn’t stay in standby mode. It was waking up immediately).
  3. XBMC 12 runs quite fine on Windows 8 pro too.
    • Sound 5.1 is supported as soon as Speakers are configured in 5.1 in Windows (The sound is really well improved compare to the sound provided by MCE…)
    • Watching movies and listening music from Synology using UPnp works very well (first time, indexing is required…)
    • Remote Control MCE is quite well supported too. A Hard Reset is required (pressing the power button on the Acer for a few seconds)
    • WOL works fine after either an Hibernate or a Power Off (Even without disabling “Fast Startup” in the “Power Options”).

Freewares Easy Remote Access from Anywhere: TeamViewer

TeamViewer is my favorite free application (for non-commercial use) to remotely access my PC and home servers from anywhere (I.e.: Internet).

Click to Read More

To access my PC and servers using Remote Desktop, I should define one port forwarding per machine on my router and configure Remote Desktop on each machine to listen on “its” port. Next, I should be able to remind the ports used for each machine – or create bookmarks – or … I could possibly use the “Anywhere Access” feature of Server 2012 Essentials, but it requires to setup a domain, buy and install a SSL certificates, etc…

With TeamViewer, instead, I log onto there website with my account and see a list of my machines. I simply click on a machine in the list, “et voilà”… from a single location, easy to remember, I can get remote access to the desktop of any PC at home or transfer any files from those. Even better, it supports remote desktop on PC with mutliple screens. And finally, I can also print any documents from my home machines on the printer next to me (e.g.: at the office).

For sure, the machine to be accessed must be up and running and TeamViewer must have been previously installed and configured to authorize unattended remote access (with a password).

To be noticed: TeamViewer may not be installed without a licence on a Windows Server. A Server is assumed to be for “commercial” use. That’s a pity as Windows Home Server is clearly a Server for personal use only… If you try to install it, it will not let you choose the “free-flavor” setup… Interesting to note however: “Ninite“, which is a free software used to silently download, install and update softwares, is actually able to setup TeamViewer on Servers too, in the free-flavor (the only inconvenient is that TeamViewer does not appear on the Start Screen and is not searchable from the Charm Bar.

To setup TeamViewer as a System Service:

  1. Run “TeamViewer.exe”, 
  2. Go to Extras > Options > General Tab,
  3. Enter a  Display Name
  4. Check the option – Start TeamViewer with Windows
  5. Enter a Password & confirm it
  6. Select the option – Accept incoming LAN connections

Download: http://www.teamviewer.com/en/download/windows.aspx

To remotely access files on one of my machines, without taking remote control of it, I could use the SkyDrive App. Maybe to be tested later…

Tips Change Windows Product Key before activation

Here is two command lines to change a Windows product key (Vista,  7 or  8) and activate Windows. They must be executed in a Command Prompt “Run As Administrator”.

  1. To set a product key, run “slmgr.vbs -ipk <your product key>”
    • Ex.: slmgr.vbs -ipk 00000-00000-00000-00000-00000
  2. To activate windows after changing the key, run “slmgr.vbs -ato”

Tips Boot XMBCbuntu (XBMC Live) from a USB Key for testing purpose on Acer iDea 510

The purpose: try if XBMC is compatible with the hardware of a PC before doing a full installation.

Tested on my Acer iDea 510 with success. Works quite well and could replace Windows 8 Pro with the Media Center Pack !

Click to Read More

  • Download Linux Live USB Creator, a.k.a. Lili, to create a bootable USB Key with a linux (Could also try Unetbootin USB Creator ?…).
  • Download an ISO of XBMCbuntu from here.
    • Version 12 RC 3 of XMBCbuntu is not yet supported by Lili. In addition this version does not include DXVA support yet…
    • To boot another linux, for any purpose, download an ISO for i386 compatible with Lili (When using UNetbootin downloads itself the selected Linux image).
  • Create the bootable USB Key following the how-to.
    1. Choose a USB flash drive in the dropdown list.
    2. Select the ISO of XBMCbuntu downloaded previously.
    3. Choose the size of persistent data (usually between 250 MB and 2 GB).
    4. Check all the options.
    5. Click the lightning button to start the creation.

Tested on an HTPC Acer iDea 510:

  • First try failed. It stops with “load fallback graphics devices [Fail]”
  • Fix:
    1. Open the file syslinux\txt.cfg
    2. Search and Replace “quiet splash” with “quiet splash vmalloc=256M”
  • Second try: great !!! There is much less “lag” than in Windows 8 Pro + Media Center Pack
  • The remote control works fine so far. Including Shutdown (power-off).
  • Configuring the System to use Suspend instead of Shutdown works fine only once.
    • Suspend is really immediate (less than 1 sec).
    • However, I didn’t find yet how to configure the remote to wake-up the HTPC.
    • Pressing the power button on the HTPC wakes up XBMC is less than 2 sec
    • Trying again to Suspend the HTPC will result in a black screen with the cursor blinking… A hard reboot is required :(
  • During the use of XBMC, I was able to play HD movies from a SMB Shared Folder of my Synology.
  • Sound plays in 2.0 (stereo), also for movies in 5.1 (with downmix), but default volume is really low compared to the default volume in Windows 8. Within XBMC, I have to boost the Volume Amplification. So it’s not the best possible sound.
  • Sound doesn’t play correctly at all in 5.1 (although I have a 5.1 system and the movie is in DTS 5.1) ?!
  • I didn’t succeed yet to view any movie using UPnP. I can configure such a source, but don’t see any list of movies in that source ? (To be investigated)
  • During the shutdown, I noticed an error “Killing all remaining process [Fail]”. When shutdown is initiated from the remote control, XMBCbuntu asks to press enter to power-off after the error message here above.
I am not 100% convinced at all that it will be a good choice to run on the Acer iDea 510 instead of Windows 7 and MCE…

Hardwares Windows 8 Pro x64 and Media Center Pack on Acer Idea 510 – failed

I have decided to upgrade my Acer iDea 510 with Windows 8 x64 and the MCE feature pack… As often I like trying to improve things which works quite well especially if there is a risk that it does not work as well after :D

And indeed, the result is great – the HD video does not play well anymore, Standby is not working. I have to find an alternative or go back to Windows 7 with MCE :(

Click to Read More

First, I did install Windows 8 pro x64. Most probably a double mistake as I guess I won’t find all required drivers for this Acer iDea under Windows 8 and even less for a x64 platform…

Notice that during the installation, I did check the option to automatically activate Windows.

Next, for the Software part: I did install the Media Center feature Pack:

  • On this page, request a free licence for this pack (Offer limited until 31 jan 2013).
  • On the Start Screen, type “add features” to select “Add Features to Windows 8”.
  • In the “Add Features to Windows 8” window, select “I already have a product key” and enter the free key got previously for the MCE pack.
  • Notice that once MCE installed, the “Add Features” is not available anymore in Windows…
  • Configure MCE

After that, the first issue arrived: Windows 8 started to pretend its licence was not valid for an activation. I did try to retype my key without success (That was yesterday). However, today, after a reboot, it appeared that Windows 8 was again activated ?!

  • Start a Windows Update and install Microsoft .Net 3.5 (required for the next step)
  • Install and configure the latest version of Media Browser (which is the best free add-in I found to manage a video library (.Net 3.5 is a prerequisite)
At that time, I noticed that MCE was reacting very slowly and not displaying smoothly movies… Maybe because the Media Browser service was indexing my content?
  • Install Win8Codecs for x64. (Usually, I don’t use a pack but will give a try to this one today).
  • Disable UAC (and reboot)
  • Disable Firewall for private network
  • Enable Remote Desktop:
    • On the Start Screen type “system”, click on “Settings” and select “System” in the results.
    • Click on “Remote Settings”
    • Enable “Allow remote connections to this computer”

One day later,  MCE is still  very slowly and not fluent at all… :( I may only presume that the problem is with the display drivers… When I try to navigate to play a movie, I can clearly ear the fan speed going crazy ?! The PC appears not capable of playing HD movies… it’s tooooo slow within MCE. The sound is ok but the display not at all… Also Media Player Home Cinema is not succeeding the play correctly HD movies… I think I will have to look for codecs with support for hardware acceleration and adhoc display drivers…

Finally, from the hardware point of view:

  • The remote control is working fine
  • WiFi and Ethernet connection are working fine
  • Ethernet NIC is configure to allow WOL
  • The front Digital Display is  recognized by Windows 8 but not displaying anything else that “Welcome To Aspire IDEA).
  • Drivers are missing for 3 devices (PCI devices database available here – how to here – and Microsoft catalog to search drivers is available here).
    • 2 Multimedia Video Controllers with Device Instance Path “PCI VEN_14F1 DEV_5B7A SUBSYS_5B7914F1 REV_00\4 197A8245 0 08F0” and “PCI VEN_14F1 DEV_5B7A SUBSYS_071812AB REV_00\4 197A8245 0 00F0”. Those are the “TV Tuner Yuan MPC718 Hybrid HW encoder with FM”
      • I don’t care about those for now as they are most probably for TV input and I may not used them anyway. The signal is encoded by my TV provider which does not provide any decoding software)
    • Another one not identified but related to ACPI with a device path “ACPI\AWY0001\2 DABA3FF 1” and a hardware ID “ACPI\AWY0001”, I found it was used for the “Away Mode System” and required “Intel QRT Driver” (Quick Resume Technology).
      • the Intel QRT Driver 1.6 for Vista to be found on Acer Support site works fine. Once unzip in a folder of the PC, go to the Start Screen, type “Device Manager” and start this manager. Select the “Unknow Device” and update the driver selecting the folder above.
      • Wierd, on some sites, it’s said that this is an “NVidia Away mode” ? The setup for nForce should then deploy the required drivers… (To be validated)
      • Note for later purpose: Intel Driver Update Wizard available here.
  • The graphic card chipset Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 is recognize but the drivers installed are from Microsoft (Basic Display Adapter) and not specific ones… ?! The auto-detection wizard from NVIdia is here. It doesn’t find anything specific more appropriate than the MS Basic Display Driver… I did select myself GeForce, GeForce Go Serie 7 (notebook), GeForce 7600, Windows 8 64 bits; no result.
    • I did download manually the latest Vista drivers (03/09/2012) for GeForce Go 7600 from the Microsoft catalog, did unpack the cab, and did try to update the drivers with the option “Browse my computer” > “Let me pick from a list of device drivers on my computer” > “Have Disk” > pick the .inf from the cab. I found the drivers in the list but the setup failed because it was not for my OS :(. I tried with other drivers for Win7x64 (179.48). Bad luck too. I did try next to add the Hardware Device id of my card in the nvac.inf file (found in C:\NVIdiaWinVista64\179.48\IS\Display) and to pick this one… Or to use it via the Device Manager > Action > Add Legacy hardward > Add the hardware that I manually select > Display Adapter > Have Disk… Hopeless :(
    • I found a guy who forced drivers for Win7x64 on Win8x64 with signing disabled. I will possibly also try later his method for disabling driver signing at boot (to be tested… but the issue does not seem to be the signature):
      1. Windows Key + R
      2. Enter shutdown.exe /r /o /f /t 00
      3. Click the “OK” button
      4. System will restart to a “Choose an option” screen
      5. Select “Troubleshoot” from “Choose an option” screen
      6. Select “Advanced options” from “Troubleshoot” screen
      7. Select “Windows Startup Settings” from “Advanced options” screen
      8. Click “Restart” button
      9. System will restart to “Advanced Boot Options” screen
      10. Select “Disable Driver Signature Enforcement”
  • Sleep state was not enabled.
    • The command “Powercfg /a” reported that the Graphic card (drivers) where disabling the stand by state. I was expecting this as the drivers are not specific to the card and do not know how to manage its power state…
    • The command “Powercfg /a” also reported that “Hybrid Sleep” was not enabled because S3 was not available (to be checked in the BIOS).
    • To enable sleep state:
      • Restart and enter the Bios setup
        • Press Del at boot to enter the Bios setup
        • Go to the “Power Management Setup” tab
        • “ACPI Function” must be enabled
        • ACPI Suspend Type must be S1&S3
        • “Resume by PCI PME” must be enabled (wake up with remote control)
        • “Wake Up On Lan” must be enabled (for my purpose)
      • Back to Windows,
        • On the Start Screen, type “Power Plan”, click on “Settings” and select “Edit Power Plan” in the results.
        • Click “Change Advanced Power Settings”
        • Click “Change settings that are currently unavailable”
        • I don’t use WiFi, so I set “Power Saving Mode” = “Low Power Saving” under “Wireless Adapter Settings”
        • Under Sleep, I only see “Hibernate After”. I set 60 minutes
          • I should find how to configure the PC to see “Sleep after” and even possible “Allow Hybrid Sleep”. I will here after try to investigate this issue in details.
    • The command “Powercfg /energy” does an audit of the PC and reports all issues (like details on what prevent the sleep mode but also about what is consuming CPU, etc…):
      • Notice: the report is stored in C:\Windows\System32\enery-report.html. This file may not be opened within any browser as long as it’s in System32 (although I did disable UAC already). It must be first moved to, e.g., %USERPROFILE%\Desktop\
      • S1, S2, S3 are not supported although S1&S3 are now enabled in the Bios.
      • S4 is supported.
      • The USB devices do not enter the Selective Suspend state (this would not be blocking the PC for entering the sleep mode)
      • The drivers \FileSysem\srvnet is preventing the system to enter sleep.
        • It’s reported that this can be due to the network drivers not being up-to-date
        • But this does the trick if you don’t want to share the content (media) of the PC
          1. On the Start Screen, type “Advanced Sharing”, Click “Settings” and Select the “Manage Advanced Sharing Settings”
          2. Collapse the “Private” section and Expand the “All networks” section
          3. Click on “Choose media streaming options” under “All Networks\Media Sharing”
          4. Click on “Block All”
          5. Run again the energy audit (possibly reboot if the problem persist, especially if you tried the next tip!)
        • This is NOT doing the trick: edit the current Power Plan to “Allow the computer to sleep” under the node “Multimedia settings” > “When sharing media”.
      • Its finally clearly stated that the PC may not enter the sleep mode due to the Microsoft Basic Display Driver which has disabled S1 and S2 sleep states.
    • Powercfg -energy -output %USERPROFILE%\Desktop\Energy_Report.html could be used to automatically store the file in the right location
    • To see if there is still anything preventing the PC to enter the sleep mode, type the command “Powercfg /requests”. You should see “None” for every category.
    • If after a reboot, your still have the same issue with \FileSystem\srvnet, try to override it with the command “Powercfg -requestsoverride driver \filesystem\srvnet system”
      • To undo this command, type “Powercfg -requestsoverride driver \filesystem\srvnet”
    • Now, the remaining issue to enter the S3 sleep state is the Microsoft Basic Display Driver, which is for sure also responsible for the performance issue in MCE. Based on tries done previously to force Win7x64 drivers for the NVidia GeForce Go 7600, I think I won’t succeed is using Windows 8 on this Acer iDea 510 :(
References:
  • http://www.windowsitpro.com/article/windows8/sleep-disabled-graphics-card-144468
  • http://mingersoft.com/blog/2011/12/why-wont-windows-automatically-sleep/
  • http://iboyd.net/index.php/2010/05/16/windows-7-power-management-fixing-pc-insomnia/
  • http://www.eightforums.com/tutorials/9695-driver-install-device-manager-windows-8-a.html
Selective Suspend State: this one can be enable or disable on the USB node while editing the Power Plan (in the Power Options).
A USB device driver can send a message to windows telling it to idle the device.  This puts the device in a low-power state (the suspend state).  When a USB device is suspended, windows does not wait for it to respond before entering a sleep or hibernate mode.  If you disable this feature, the system will simply return a failure to the driver when the driver attempts to enter suspend state.  If the driver complies with Microsoft guidelines, it will simply retry the idle request at every expiration of its idle timer.
  • S1: All processor caches are flushed, and the CPU(s) stops executing instructions. Power to the CPU(s) and RAM is maintained; devices that do not indicate they must remain on may be powered down.
  • S2: CPU powered off. Dirty cache is flushed to RAM.
  • S3: Commonly referred to as Standby, Sleep, or Suspend to RAM. RAM remains powered
  • S4: Hibernation or Suspend to Disk. All content of main memory is saved to non-volatile memory such as a hard drive, and is powered down.
  • To be continued…

Tips Android – No connection to any network – Go Locker

I had an issue recently with my Samsung Galaxy S2: I was unable to call or send SMS. I was also not reachable anymore and appeared as not connected. I did not even succeed to force manually the connection to any network. After some unsuccessful investigation, I did reboot the device and noticed that I was not prompted anymore to provide my PIN code. The prompt was actually hidden by my Lock Screen for Go Locker :(

Click to Read More

For some reason, the configuration set for that lock screen was preventing the prompt for PIN code to appear. For sure, my mobile was configure to prevent any use without a valid PIN code. So voilà !

A colleague of mine had the very same issue. We found the prompt only after disabling  Go Locker and rebooting

This issue is also reported by other user on Google Play, but I never saw any explanation and solution. Maybe it was related to some specific settings I set, like: prevent pressing twice the home button to enter the “desktop”, … Or maybe because I did select Go Locker as default application to handle the Home button instead of Go Launcher ?