I am first and foremost a hardware guy. When I say that, I don’t just mean I enjoy playing with gadgets – I managed to get paid for it. For 15+ years, I was a “Field Engineer” for NCR, installing and repairing everything from cash registers and check-sorting machines, to mini and mainframe computers. I had to learn octal and hex, troubleshooting digital logic using an oscilloscope, and more than a few mechanical principles. My first personal computer was the Decision Mate V, running CP/M, with a whopping 16K of RAM. (There was a hack that involved soldering more RAM chips on top of the existing ones, to bring it all the way up to the 64K max – what else do you do on those long winters, shut in at C-Tech?)

I saw the writing on the wall in 1995, and began my career as more of a “software guy…” meaning, I studied Windows NT (version 3.51) and practiced at home, until I achieved the MCSE certification. I worked for a local networking vendor for another 13 years, at which point most of the smaller businesses that were my customers began to say, “Pay $120 an hour, to help us with computers? You must be joking! Any high-school kid could do that!”

So I made the transition to “Enterprise IT,” where I still am.

I always kept that “home network” up to date, but this year I moved it into my employer’s rack. Right now, this is a collection of VMWare guest servers. I got a lot of mileage out of several rack-mount chassis’ that I found more than 10 years ago – each one has had at least 4 or 5 system boards in them. You know the drill – build a machine, using boards, power supplies, and so on from Newegg. Then, when it starts to get old, update it, and the extra items go into a computer parts junkyard…

One more thing about “building your own” – if you are thinking that you can do this (buying system boards, graphics cards, cases and so on) as a way of saving money – guess again. In the case of “servers,” what you are building is really no comparison to the real thing, but it doesn’t need to be. Building your own computer out of parts is about like going to Auto Zone or NAPA, and trying to build your next car out of parts – it would cost you at least twice as much, and it would be pretty awful to drive. The ONLY reasons to do this are:

1.) It’s educational – up to a point
2.) It’s fun
3.) You end up with a gigantic “junkyard” (see above)

So anyway, that junkyard eventually gets big enough to create whole “new” computers, which are not really new of course, but must be good for… something! “Hmmm, let’s see, yeah – that would make a good Linux machine!”

I really don’t do that any more, and I am phasing out the junkyard. For the past few years, I have bought all my desktops on EBay. I used to be partial to HP engineering workstations, but lately I am seeing far better value in Lenovo. These are built like a tank, and quiet, with plenty of room and open slots. I take the stock workstations, tear out the drives, and put good disk controllers and SSDs in them. (I know, more parts for the junkyard. They make good USB3 external storage.)
For my actual home network I stopped using my play servers years ago, and just went with a NAS. I have used Buffalo for quite a while, but there are plenty of others out there just as good. Netgear ReadyNAS is especially attractive, as you can just plop in your own drives (from your junkyard?) I have my fair share of external USB drives for backup, but I am still working on backup-to-cloud.

My desktops are currently twin Lenovo workstations, one dual-processor (Debian) and one single (Windows 8.1.) Both are Xeon. An old HP DC7900 SFF desktop (updated with SSD of course) is the shack computer, and another just like it is for my wife. I use an ancient Dell laptop when traveling, mostly just to remote in (see below) or at work just to check LAN connectivity. I use a Nexus 7 to keep up with news, and to check wi-fi coverage.

Thunderbird has been my bread and butter for email for many years now, and I have moved the old archives across many distributions and many computers. Haven’t lost anything yet! I still have sent messages in there from 2005… I must also acknowledge that the Windows version has finally caught up as well.

I have another old laptop that just sits in the rack, with the lid closed, running Windows. It is published through the firewall, just to do RDP to a nicely-customized install of Thunderbird. I am pretty particular about my email clients, and this helps me to fly through a few hundred messages per day, from anywhere. You can’t beat the spam-filtering, and I manually sync the address book with my main Linux machine. Since it’s all IMAP, I see the same thing there as I would if I were sitting at my main computer.

I use Microsoft Skydrive, not for much right now, mostly stuff that needs to be synced between work and home.

Debian Rocks! As far as I am concerned, this is finally the year of Linux on the desktop. I dropped Ubuntu for my main computer after running it since release 5, and loaded up Debian. I wasn’t sad to see Unity go.

Then there is GIMP – I was an old Photoshop guy from way back… but when it got too big and bloated (and expensive,) I forced myself to make the transition. It does everything the old Photoshop did, and it’s probably overkill as a photo editor, but once you start poking around, it’s hard to stop. I use it to draw icons and logos, and of course it’s especially great for turning those huge pictures into reasonable-sized JPGs and PNGs for web use.

What I use – hardware
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