Apple Mac computers lose connectivity to on-premise Exchange server

Every day we experienced many of our Macs losing their connection to the mail server which happened to be a Microsoft SBS 2008 server. For many months the solution was to connect to the public wireless connection that was OK for the users but it was just a workaround. Connectivity would be sporadic and having the Macs connected to the LAN over the wire and to the public wireless connection wasn’t a good long term solution.

After much troubleshooting I figured out that the configuration of their DNS and DHCP servers was incorrect. Research and testing revealed that Macs use Autodiscover to connect to the Exchange server. Internal DNS didn’t have the autodiscover records required by internal Exchange clients. And it didn’t matter what client – Entourage, Apple Mail, Outlook for Mac – they all lost connectivity quite often and a random times. Once was resolved but adding the proper records there was one other problem.

DHCP was configured to assigned the SBS server AND and external DNS server for DNS. Once that was rectified by setting DHCP to assign just the SBS server as the DNS server and running DNS Bench to determine the fastest DNS servers for the office and setting them as the forwarders, the Macs maintained stable connectivity to the Exchange server. Finally!

Why was this the case? The Macs need Autodiscover records to be set up correctly in DNS. That’s why connecting over public wireless connection worked. The external DNS servers had Autodiscover records set up correctly for external clients. Luckily this worked for their environment as a band-aid. When the internal one wasn’t configured correctly the Macs could never connect to the Exchange server using the internal DNS server to resolve hostnames.

Why was it sporadic? I chalk it up to the sometimes slow DNS name resolution of the SBS server. If it didn’t respond quick enough, it would force the Macs to use the external DNS server for name resolution and would work, but if the SBS server did respond in time, they would lose connectivity.

So fixing both was necessary – DHCP to only assign the SBS server as the internal DNS server and for DNS to be configured with the correct Autodiscover records.

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This network issue threw me for a loop

I got sent to a network problem for one person in a office and some troubleshooting took place as well as some remediation steps. Basically the user had no network access all of a sudden. The computer had already been rebooted (the first thing IT people seem to recommend, right?)

The network card was removed from device manager and reinstalled. At that point I was dispatched to the client. I tried some basic stuff – swapped network cables. That didn’t work. Rebooted the switch. Forced the NIC into 100 Mbps Full – nope. 100 Mbps Half – nope. 1 Gbps – nope, nope. Scanned for malware. None found. I started working on it in the server room and after updating the NIC drivers, I got internet. Cool! It’s fixed.

Then I moved it back to the user’s desk and no internet again. Hmm…I guess it’s the cable drop between the network closet and the office. Temporary solution – move his computer to another desk. So we move all the components – PC, monitors, cables, keyboard, etc. And???

NO NETWORK AGAIN? Okaaay

Moved to another office on a different switch. Still no network. What? Back in the server room it started getting spotty network connectivity. Weird. Contacted Dell support and my manager. Ran a BIOS update and did a clean uninstall of the NIC from Device Manager. Reinstalled the NIC with fresh drivers from Dell. Seems to have network connectivity. Moved it back to the temporary desk. No network!!!

What is going on??

I’m scratching my head trying to figure it out. So on a whim, I decided to try 100 Mbps Full and I got network! Hooray! 1 Gbps doesn’t seem to work and Auto-negotiate doesn’t work either. So in the end it took a BIOS update, NIC driver refresh, and forcing the NIC to connect at 100 Mbps.

Nothing changed as far as I can determine. No updates were installed and the user didn’t change anything. Why it didn’t work all of sudden? Who knows? I’m just glad it’s working!

Install Several Programs At Once With Ninite

As an IT consultant I do a fair amount of PC installations and rebuilds. In the SMB market, there aren’t a lot of companies that have imaging or rapid desktop deployment capability so many times when a PC needs to be set up, much of the work is still manual in the sense that applications are installed one at a time. The more programs that need to be installed, the longer it takes.

There are a standard set of programs that are installed on most computers. Things like Adobe Reader, Flash, Java, Chrome, Firefox, iTunes, and Quicktime are installed fairly frequently on PC builds. Installing each one can take several minutes that can add up to many hours over time. Not to mention, some of these have those check boxes that if you’re not careful, will install other programs that you don’t want or change defaults like setting a specific search engine as the new default.

Enter Ninite.com

Ninite

Ninite | Install or Update All Your Programs an Once

Ninite is a cool web based tool that allows you to select from a list of programs and install them in one install process. I’m sure it’ll save you time when building computers by skipping a bunch of steps like navigating to the install site or share on the network, clicking through the install wizard windows, and it picks the basic checkbox selections and doesn’t install 3rd party programs which we can forget to do sometimes. In addition to the list above, there are other programs like VLC player, messaging applications like Skype, AIM, Trillian. Online storage programs like Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive. Even popular antimalware programs like Malwarebytes, Avira, AVG, and Avast. Of course you don’t want to install all of them. One should do.

Log onto Ninite.com and see what it can do for you. It will also update applications if you already have them installed. It’s really quite convenient. On your next build, try ninite.com out and see if it you find it saving you some time on your computer builds.

Computer Slow? No Malware? What Could It Be?

Can’t figure out what’s bogging down your computer after running a malware scan, coming up clean, and diagnosing the hardware? It could be a piece of software. A toolbar on your browser, an add-on, multiple versions of a program, or 2 or more antivirus programs.

First it could be different versions of a program. Many computers come with trial versions of Microsoft Office and if you install your own copy or your company has its own copy it’s a good practice to remove the trial copy. Or maybe you’ve upgraded and the previous version wasn’t properly removed. Or you may have Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat installed and PDF files may not open or crash the PC. Remove Adobe Reader and see if that fixes your issues.

Internet bogged down? Check plug-ins and add-ons. Disable them and see if that improves browser performance. Some of those IE toolbars are notorious for slowing down browsers. What I’ve seen a lot of lately are shopping add-ons or deal finding applications. Many times you can remove these resource hogging software from the Control Panel > Programs module. If you know approximately when the slowness started you can sort the programs by installation date and check for what might have been installed at the time the problems began. Remove them if you don’t use or are not familiar with the application and see if that speeds things up.

Control Panel, programs installed on date

Sort Programs by Installed On Date in Control Panel

What if you uninstall a program you actually need. What do you do? You can create a System Restore point before uninstalling anything and give yourself a safety net. You can get the program back by running a system restore operation that will bring your system back to the point just before you uninstalled the program.

System Restore

Windows 8 System Restore

One of the worst situations is if you have 2 anti-malware programs active at the same time. If you have more than one running real time scans they will fight for hard drive access and keep your drive active and possibly pegged at 100% most of the time. I’ve seen this slow down computers to the point of being unusable. Optimizer and Tune-Up programs are pretty bad, too. Get rid of them if you see them. Instead of tuning up the PC they actually slow it down so much that it makes you think you need to pay for their software.

Chances are if you scanned for viruses and found nothing it could be some piece of software taking up CPU, memory, or hard drive bandwidth and making your computer super slow.

An Important Tool to Have In Your IT Toolkit

Hand sanitizer.

Yes, good old hand sanitizer in a travel squeeze bottle is very important to have especially if you travel to different clients often. I have five kids and the thought of any of us getting sick brings fear and worry. Why? If one person gets sick, if what they have is transmittable it may take weeks to be eradicated from our house. It gets passed on from one person to another and may make a second trip around before it’s gone! And with our large family that can take a long time.

I don’t know which bacteria or viruses are transmitted by touch. But I don’t care. You touch something that may be infected, then rub your eyes, nose, or mouth – guess what!? You’re sick, my friend. Think about how many times you touch your face or rub your eyes during day. Yup, pretty often, right?

Now you can see the need for hand sanitizer. You ever use office or restaurant bathrooms and grab the door handle without using a paper towel? How about hand rails? Use those? Buttons on the elevator? Door knobs? Ever shake hands? So many opportunities for transfer. Have you ever seen anyone cough or sneeze into the palm of their hands then touch something you might touch later? Yup, transfer.

As an IT professional guess what we put our finger tips on a lot? Yup. Keyboards and mice. The same two things most of the computer using people in the world put their hands on. And if the person who sits at the desk has a little sore throat or sniffle, beware. Please use the sanitizer.

It’s especially critical to use it when it’s the cold and flu season. People cough and sneeze. They get the sniffles. They use their hands to wipe their noses and cover their coughs and sneezes, then they put there hands on something that you may touch and before you know it, you get the coughs, sneezing, and sniffles. (You know you should cough and sneeze into the inside of your elbow. Think vampire.)

I don’t know about you, but I hate getting sick. That’s why I’m cautious about touching my face and I always carry hand sanitizer with me and use it a lot. Can’t be too shy about using it. And if some clients have the pumps scattered throughout the office, use it! Why not?

Well, stay healthy and go pick up a travel sized hand sanitizer bottle. When you run out just refill it with the huge bottle you can pick up from your local super- or grocery store.

Betrayed by Malwarebytes anti-malware

I was called to fix an XP desktop that wasn’t getting any icons or start bar after some software installs and updates.

Many techies are familiar with Malwarebytes. For many of us, it’s one of the first antimalware tools we use if what is already installed failed to stop an infection. Well this popular utility betrayed me recently.

So the symptom was this – upon boot-up of an XP computer the only 2 things that came up were the background and the mouse cursor. Running explorer.exe from task manager didn’t work. You can get into safe mode just fine however.

There were some updates that were installed for Windows and an update to a third party software. Rather than roll back all the changes, though, my decision was to try and track down the cause. This was similar to the blank desktop symptom I wrote about before but there were no other computers in the office that exhibited the same behavior.

Malwarebytes

Malwarebytes

Well, you must have guessed already that the cause of the trouble in this case was Malwarebytes. Someone must’ve used it and installed the free trial because the process was running in Task Manager. Once I ended the process, the desktop suddenly appeared. Goes to show you that sometimes our trusted tools in our tool bags are the ones that cause you trouble.

I’m not so quick to point the finger to Malwarebytes because it was installed prior to the software updates and the computer didn’t have any issues. Something in the updates must’ve been incompatible with Malwarebytes and will be corrected with another update. I didn’t want to wait so I just uninstalled Malwarebytes until I need it again to scan the computer for malware in the future.

Blank Desktop, No Mapped Drives

Had a weird issue pop up recently. The background is this. The client had a new Windows 2012 server installed running as a domain controller, DHCP, DNS, and file server. Some new switches were installed.

The issue I came in to help with was that people were not able to connect to the network for some reason. These were people who just came back from a long period of time and logged in but were not getting connectivity to the network drives or printers. We thought that the solution was to put them into another port on the switches which did work for some people but for some reason it didn’t work that day.

As I was trying to figure out this problem, another issue arose. I rebooted someone’s PC who was having network connectivity problems and all I got was a blank desktop with a cursor for the mouse. Even in safe mode, I got the same symptom. Checking IPCONFIG I got the 169.x.x.x address. You know what that means, it wasn’t getting an IP assignment from the DHCP server.

Another tidbit of information – this network didn’t have folder redirection or roaming profiles so it wasn’t either of those that was causing issues. After some trial and error, I was able find a Band-Aid while we worked towards a solution. The temporary fix was to disconnect the LAN cable, log in, then connect back up. After that, people were able to use their PCs. But the issue still remained without employing the Band-Aid fix. Why are they getting blank screens with a mouse pointer and nothing else?

We don’t know exactly what fixed it but we did a few things and either one or a combination of the things we did apparently fixed the problem. Rebooted all the switches. And I found that the DHCP wizard was complaining about something not being completed. I ran through the wizard to finish it all up. I don’t remember exactly what it was but some final steps needed to be completed. I believe there are some accounts/groups that needed some DHCP service permissions that it found wasn’t done. Rebooted the new 2012 server.

After doing those, the network authentications problems, network connectivity issues, and blank screens all disappeared. My personal feeling is that the DHCP wizard needed to finish up the permissions. The reason I think that is because of the fact that client PCs were not getting IP assignments. In any case, the problem was fixed and everyone was back to work within a few hours.

Hope this helps someone.

Experience with Lenovo Tech support for my Lenovo Twist – Part Two

This a follow up from my first blog about Lenovo tech support for the Lenovo Twist trackpad problem. After about a month and a half Lenovo finally sent the correct parts and a technician to get my Lenovo Twist buttoned up. This after several appointments being set only to find that the tech didn’t have all the required parts.

Finally, though, the tech showed up all the needed parts. He proceeded to replace everything he had. Motherboard, palm rest, screen. Everything except the bottom, hard drive, and battery it seemed like. He reassembled it and booted it up. Yes!

Windows detected some hardware changes and automatically took care of the drivers, etc. That’s fine. No re-registration needed. Cool…

I gave it a quick once-over and all seemed good to go. Almost as good as new. Just like getting a brand new laptop.

A few minutes after the tech leaves, another problem pops up! I couldn’t believe it.

The touchscreen is acting all weird. It’s like someone is dragging their fingers across the screen back and forth from left to right and right to left, very fast. Man! Now I have to get on the phone and try to get this resolved. I removed and re-installed the touch screen in device manager. Tried updating the drivers and rolling it back. Still the problem materialized.

Back to the Lenovo tech support call queue. After calling the support technician that my case was escalated to, he pretty much said that I have choice between getting more parts replaced and getting a new replacement unit. Basically a replacement is new laptop. I opted to get a replacement unit but if I go that route, the replacement would have to be approved which would be, according to him, no problem at all since so many parts have been replaced already. It only takes two major component replacements to qualify for a request for replacement. By this time almost everything was replaced so qualifying wasn’t going to be a problem.

So another 3 business days later I get a call from the department that is handling the replacement and guess what? The Twist is no longer being made so the next available model that’s comparable is the ThinkPad S1 Yoga. After reviewing the specs it’s pretty much identical except the cache on the hard drive is 16GB instead of 24, or something like that. I don’t think that’s a deal breaker.

In my post about Accidental Warranties I explained how beneficial these programs are highly recommended. And for me it is definitely the case. Albeit it took a few weeks, in the end I didn’t have much down time and the problem is getting resolved.

I stand by my opinion that getting the extended and accidental coverage is a good thing. And I still recommend Lenovo ThinkPads and their warranty coverage.

Thanks for reading and hopefully there won’t be a part 3!

Accidental coverage and Extended warranties for mobile computers

At my company, we always get computers with the next day onsite repair coverage just in case there is a hardware problem. Almost always 3 years, some 5 years. When hardware fails getting service is simple. You call in to technical support, tell them what the issue is and if it is indeed a real issue, they many times will overnight the parts to you. Often they will send a tech to install the parts which is extremely helpful. It’s so convenient and such a time saver.

Just the other day, a client was using his computer, a desktop, and the hard drive died. I verified that it was. How? Two ways. First and most obvious – you hear clicking. Click. Silence. Click. Nothing. Click. It wouldn’t boot up. Second, the computer has onboard diagnostics and after running it, it came back with a hard drive failure error. Fifteen minutes on the phone with support and 24 hours later a new hard drive arrived. Preloaded with the basics – Windows, all the appropriate drivers, and any other software that came with originally on the computer when it was purchased. I still had to load other software – Office, Firefox and Chrome, Java, Flash, etc. But at the end of the day the computer was in working condition in a couple days. Thankfully, we had good backups and folder redirection so the data loss was minimal.

I highly recommended the retailer’s accidental damage coverage if you buy a portable computer, laptop, tablet, or some other device that’s going to see heavy use. I know. Many of you, even me, gasp at the thought of paying for the coverage. It’s true that for the most part for many things, it’s a waste of money. But in the case of laptops, I believe, for the heavy road warrior laptop user, it’s a good safety net to have. Best Buy’s warranty will replace the laptop with a comparable unit sometimes if you have their accidental coverage.

I know of someone who accidentally shattered their laptop screen with a golf club and because the unit was covered with the accidental coverage, Best Buy replaced it with a newer laptop. It was a more powerful machine than the one that was replaced. Why? Because it had been over 2 years since the damaged laptop was purchased and the newer one which had a more powerful CPU, more memory and hard drive space, better graphics was the closest comparable unit. They did all the data transfer and a fully functional, faster, more powerful laptop was handed over to the golfer so that they could watch YouTube videos on how to improve their golf swing once again.

So, if you are going to be travelling around with your laptop or possibly going to put it in situations where it may get dropped or damaged, get the warranty and accidental coverage. Remember that the two are different. The warranty covers all hardware problems as a result of normal use. The accidental coverage takes care of…you guessed it…damage caused by accidents.

Trinity Rescue Kit allowed me to access files off a PC that wouldn’t boot into Windows

The Trinity Rescue Kit (“TRK” as I’ll refer to it in this article) is a wonderful tool to have in your tool bag if you’re an IT person. I’ve used this many times to reset the local Windows administrator password on PCs. If you’re game to navigate its text-only, non-GUI, non-mouse, user interface, then make sure you have a copy of it with you. I won’t go over how to create a bootable Trinity Rescue Kit CD because that’s on the web.

But what I will talk about is a cool way I’ve used it recently. I had a customer who recently purchased a Mac and wanted to copy her data from her old PC to it. Problem was the OS on the PC was corrupt. I tried some basic stuff to get the PC up and running. It wouldn’t boot into safe mode and an in-place upgrade wasn’t going to fit in the time frame that I needed to get the work done in.

Thankfully I had the TRK CD with me. Up until today, I’ve only used it as a local password reset tool as I mentioned. I booted it up with the intention of finding some sort of BART PE or other bootable environment so I can access the files, copy them to external storage, then copy it to the Mac.

Guess what I found to my surprise which turned out to be a much better solution?

Enter TRK’s Fileserver Utility

TRK has a fileserver utility which makes it able to share files over a network. I proceeded to set up the parameters which amounted to just enabling the fileserver and setting up a user and password. Then I used TRK’s IP configuration utility to assign a fixed IP address to what it called Ethernet 0 (or 1, I forget). The adapter it found was the onboard CAT5 NIC. I just tested to see if I could ping it once the cable was plugged into the customer’s switch and used SMB from the Mac’s Finder to connect to the TRK fileserver on the old PC using the IP address I gave it then connected using the credentials I set up.

Voila! It worked! I could see the file system on the old PC from the Mac, so I copied the files over the network to the Mac user’s home folders.

The customer now has all the data she needed from her old PC. I didn’t have to repair the OS or reinstall in on the old computer. All I had to do was boot into TRK, enable the fileserver, assign a user/password, then assign a fixed IP address. The only thing that could’ve messed me up was a corrupt file system on the old hard drive, but that wasn’t the case.

Trinity Rescue Kit saved my skin again!