Welcome to the QA Tech-Tips blog!

Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hot Smokin' Weapon! Award for May 2011:
EasyBCD by NeoSmart

  . . . . And a Big HELLO to all my friends out there in Television Land!

I have decided that it's time for another one of my famous (sort-of) "Hot Smokin' Weapon!" awards.

And the lucky winner is. . . . . . (Envelope please. . . .rrrrrrip, shuffle, shuffle - pregnant pause)
NeoSmart Technologies and their EasyBCD product!  (Enthusiastic canned applause. . . .)

Seriously now, EasyBCD is one of those cute little utilities that really should have been included with Windows Vista, 7, etc., because it's so darned handy and useful to have.  In a sense it's a lot like sex.  If you've never had it, you don't miss it - but once you've gotten it you wonder how you ever lived without it.  Not only is it so darned useful that, (IMHO), it should be standard equipment on modern computers, it is also absolutely free.  Yea, I know - I can hear the yawns already - however try not to fall asleep before I finish here, you'll be glad you stayed awake - Promise!

To really appreciate the magnitude of EasyBCD's contribution, we need to take yet another Stroll Down Memory Lane. . . .

The earliest versions of both DOS and Windows - up until about the time of Windows '98 - use a hard-coded boot "pointer" in the Master Boot Record, (MBR), of the hard drive to tell it where - on that particular hard drive - the boot and start up files were so that it could get the computer up and running.  The advantage of this system was that the boot process is a trivial exercise:  Follow The Yellow-Brick Road and you eventually get to Oz.

If you've been paying attention, you will see the big, glaring, disadvantage of this boot method.  It assumes that any bootable operating system is on the first hard drive in the logical chain - which, by the way, is the only one that would boot natively.

If you wanted to boot to a different partition on the first, (root), hard drive, you'd have to re-create a new MBR that points to the partition to be booted.  If you want to boot to an entirely different hard drive you'd have to, (somehow or other), change the logical order of the drives to make the new drive the root drive in the logical chain.  (And then muck around with the MBR!)  Both of which, (as many a user will tell you), are among the fastest ways to bork a system into utter oblivion unless you were particularly careful.  And lucky.  And had backups.

In order to make these additional partitions - or disks - bootable without having to hack the MBR, (Yow!), or fuss around with the logical sequence of the drives, (Say WHAT?!), whenever someone wanted to change the boot order; people were forced to purchase specialized applications, (like System Commander), that could show them a menu of bootable operating systems and let them pick the one they want.  It was a hack, but it was a hack that actually worked and people gladly shelled out their hard-earned pesos to buy these utilities.  These utilities, because of what they did, were also fraught with danger.  I can personally testify that if you screw up just THIS MUCH. . . . Well let me just say that it wasn't a pretty sight.

Starting with Windows NT Microsoft worked out a way to fix this problem by providing a "boot.ini" file in the root of the first logical drive that was used to boot the system.  The function of the boot.ini file was to tell the system what operating systems were installed and on which disk and/or partitions they could be found.  Creating a multi-boot environment became as simple as editing the .ini file.  No hack required!

Of course, making things that easy for the end user goes against Microsoft's Corporate Policy, so they fixed that with the release of Vista by scrapping the boot.ini file in favor of a special, hidden, "database" called the Boot Configuration Data (BCD) store.  Supposedly, this was done to support an entirely new boot paradigm called the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) - something that may well become significant when 3 terabyte (+) disks become more common.

The end result of this was to make changing the boot process virtually impossible without using a Microsoft Supplied Utility called BCDedit.  BCDedit is a pure command-line tool and is about as obtuse and cryptic as Egyptian Hieroglyphics, thus giving Microsoft the lead in the mad rush to make boot configurations as insanely difficult to maintain as possible.  (Though Grub2 is a close second, with FreeBSD and Solaris right behind them.)

Enter NeoSmart and EasyBCD.  EasyBCD transforms the management of the BCD store from alchemy and fervent prayer to something as easy as a point-and-click interface.  With this you can make a nice little menu for yourself with each bootable O/S listed - without having to jump through flaming hoops or do the high-dive into a cement filled bucket.

You can change the existing boot order around, add or remove operating system boot entries, change which O/S boots by default - along with tweaking all kinds of interesting parameters - like creating an "if all else fails, this should boot" entry in your O/S list.

Probably one of the best features of this utility, (IMHO), is that it allows you to make BACKUPS of your finely tuned boot sequence - just in case!

Even more useful is that the latest versions allow you to make a bootable "recovery" USB stick with EasyBCD on it, to help you in those cases where an operating system install has hijacked your carefully crafted boot process and stubbornly refuses to let you get it back.  Or even provide a workable substitute.

Now, admittedly, there are some things that EasyBCD can not, and will not help you with:
If you decide that you're crazy enough to mess around with, (or actually re-arrange), the logical volume GUID's, (Yikes!), or you're maddeningly insane enough to hand-edit the drive's MBR and partition tables to change the logical order of the partitions on the drive, (Double Yikes!!), EasyBCD can't help you.

For these tasks you need particular and specialized tools, a double-shot of fine Kentucky Sour-Mash Bourbon, And a straight-jacket!

For everything else related to booting, EasyBCD is the obvious winner.  So much so that, (surprise! surprise!), even the folks at Microsoft use it instead of their own tool.  Which should tell you something about both EasyBCD, and Microsoft's BCDedit utility.

P.S.  Just in case you missed the cleverly hidden hyperlink at the beginning of this article, you can go check out EasyBCD right here:  http://neosmart.net/dl.php?id=1   I'd do it if I were you.  You really will be glad you did.

What say ye?


Thursday, May 5, 2011

I've Got a Tiger in my Tank!

No, this is not an Esso/Exxon commercial.  (Of course, you do realize that I am severely dating myself with that reference!)

Neither is this a commercial for Mac's OS-X.

Instead, this article is about a little known - and probably even less often used - SATA drive mode called AHCI which stands for "Advanced Host Controller Interface".  There's even a nice Wikipedia article about it that goes into all the gory details if you're interested.

AHCI supports all kinds of fun features like the ones listed below.
(Taken from the AHCI Spec - Rev 1.3, available on IBM's web site here.)

AHCI specifies the following features:
• Support for 32 ports
• 64-bit addressing
• Elimination of Master / Slave Handling
• Large LBA support
• Hot Plug
• Power Management
• HW Assisted Native Command Queuing
• Staggered Spin-up
• Cold device presence detect
• Serial ATA superset registers
• Activity LED generation
• Port Multiplier
The support for port multipliers is important, especially if you want to get a nice shiny new External SATA RAID box - as most of them require port-multiplier support nowadays.

The large LBA support is especially important because it allows you to connect HUGE drives to the system - and the staggered spin up helps avoid smoking your computer's power supply when you fire up that monster 32 drive array!  Though you would hope that any array that size would have its own dedicated power supply, right?

There are - as always - a couple of flies in the ointment:
  • Many self-booting utilities, (like Apricorn's hard drive backup/cloning software), haven't even thought of AHCI, let alone support it.
  • If you're running anything older than Vista or a Hot Smokin' Linux Kernel, fuggedaboutit!  Don't even try.
  • If you ARE running Vista or better, (trust me, anything you might be running is much better than Vista!), or a Hot Smokin' Linux Kernel - and didn't install with AHCI enabled at initial install time - when you change to AHCI and reboot, your computer is liable to look at you with a puzzled expression and ask "What's a Cubit?"
I have no idea how to mitigate this in Linux as I have neither tried it, nor have I researched it.  On the other hand, Microsoft has already released a Knowledge Base Article describing the registry hack you must do - before making the switch - to clue your computer in on what's about to happen.

All in all, especially as multi-petabyte RAID arrays become common attachments to the average X-BOX game console, AHCI is going to become increasingly important.

What say ye?